A view from Dave Trott: You snooze, you lose
A view from Dave Trott

You snooze, you lose

There are 3.24 million cashpoint machines (ATMs) in use worldwide.

But the invention of the cashpoint is a typically British-bodge story.

It didn’t have teams of electronic engineers working in research and development labs.

It had one eccentric Scotsman named John Shepherd-Barron.

In the 1950s he wanted some cash out of the bank, but they shut at 3pm in those days.

So he couldn’t get his own money out of his own bank account.

This annoyed him and, in his bath, a thought struck him: why not get machines to dispense cash the way machines dispensed chocolate bars?

He worked on the idea and eventually persuaded Barclays bank.

He used cheque-like paper tokens impregnated with radioactive Carbon-14 (it wasn’t dangerous, you’d have to eat 136,000 cheques to have any ill effects).

Shepherd-Barron wanted a six-figure PIN but his wife could only remember four numbers, which is why we have a four-figure PIN.

He thought withdrawals should be limited to £10, which he felt was “Quite sufficient for a wild weekend”.

In 1967 it was launched at Barclays’ Enfield branch, the first withdrawal was made by Reg Varney (who played a bus driver in the TV sitcom On the Buses).

Later, Shepherd-Barron received an OBE for his invention.

Which really infuriated another Scotsman, James Goodfellow, who says he was the real inventor of the ATM.

A year before Shepherd-Barron unveiled his cashpoint machine, Goodfellow had officially patented his.

The banks were worried that the unions were going to stop bank staff working Saturday mornings, which was the only time working people could access their cash.

So Goodfellow had to get 2,000 ATMs available for one million bank customers.

And Goodfellow’s version had the plastic card we use today, not a radioactive cheque.

He was angry about not getting the credit because “The race to get it on the street was not as important. Getting it right was the answer, not getting it first.”

But, as we know, in the public’s mind that isn’t true.

In Al Ries and Jack Trout’s book Positioning, they say it’s binary, the public divides any market into two: number one and everybody else.

The public don’t study every single market in fine detail.

That’s why everyone remembers Isaac Newton as the inventor of calculus, despite the fact that it’s Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz’s version we use today.

That’s why everyone remembers Pablo Picasso as the inventor of cubism, not Georges Braque.

That’s why everyone remembers Thomas Edison as the inventor of the lightbulb, not Joseph Swan.

That’s why everyone remembers Guglielmo Marconi as the inventor of radio, not Nikola Tesla.

That’s why everyone remembers Steve Jobs as the inventor of the computer mouse, the scroll-down menu, and desktop publishing.

Despite the fact that he admits taking all those ideas from the Palo Alto Research Centre.

So, in our terms, Goodfellow got it exactly wrong – if he wanted the credit for inventing the ATM machine, the object was to stake a claim in the public’s consciousness.

Differentiation is crucial – without that, we’re just part of the mass.

But differentiation will give us clarity and identity in one of the thousands of categories fighting for attention in their daily lives.

Amanda Walsh used to tell me the retail mantra was: “One is wonderful. Two is tolerable. Three is threatened. Four is forgotten.”

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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