John Shepherd-Barron, who is widely regarded as the creator of the ATM, passed away last week. NIKHIL VARMA ponders on the difference the happiness dispenser has made in our materialistic lives

Imagine being stuck in a small town during a trip. As night falls, your car refuses to start, you are running low on cash and the shady mechanic demands a massive sum to get the vehicle up and running. You are alone and have no friends in the area. What do you do? Simple. Locate the nearest ATM, pay the mechanic to fix the car and drive away. This situation was virtually impossible a few years ago, when ATMs were yet to make a mark in most of the country.

If you were planning a short trip away from home, you needed to visit the bank and stock up on cash to ensure that your trip was not spent in long lines at banks rather than on holiday. Seldom do we realise it, but the ATM (automated teller machine) whose India-born inventor passed away recently, has changed our lives drastically.

Inspired by chocolate

John Shepherd-Barron has been credited with creating the first widely-used machine for debit accounts. Previous automated machines existed to make deposits or access cash with a credit card. Barron was inspired by the concept of a chocolate-vending machine and came up with the idea in his bath, a la Archimedes in 1967.

Before making their advent into India nearly ten years ago, our only contact with ATM machines were through the movies and telly. There was the teenage John Connor in “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” stealing from an ATM and a character in the popular sitcom “Friends” getting stuck in an ATM.

The demystification of the machine happened much later, when almost overnight, ATMs became more numerous than shops in neighbourhood stores.

On most modern ATMs, the customer is identified by inserting a plastic card with a magnetic strip or a plastic smart card with a chip, that contains a unique card number and some security information, in simpler terms ensuring that as long as you have a card and the PIN number, you can get money at any time of the day, in any place with an ATM machine.

Gone are the days, when one had to stand in long queues in banks, fill in withdrawal slips, wait for your turn, as the all-powerful clerk processed your request, gave you a token, which you would take and proceed to the next counter where the teller handed you your money in the denomination you specified at the back of the withdrawal slip or cheque. Mithun, an IT professional says, “I remember waiting at banks for cash. The advent of ATMs has simplified the process a great deal. It not only saves time, but allows you to deposit or withdraw cash at any time in the day.”

Over the past decade, ATM's have become an integral part of life in urban India, especially among students. “I do not have to depend on my local guardians or friends if I need money. I just need to go to the nearest ATM and withdraw the amount I need,” says Ritwik, a student pursuing a management course in the city. He adds, “The only problem is that I often tend to overdraw.”

The utilities offered by ATMs have also increased manifold. “When it started off, many machines did not offer facilities to deposit money and had restrictions on the amount of cash that could be withdrawn. A small fee was also imposed on people withdrawing from other bank ATMs,” says Raghunath, a bank officer at HDFC bank. “Facilities such as depositing money, using it to recharge mobile phones etc are recent additions that have added to the ease of service at ATMs.”

He contends, “The true worth of the ATM will be realised when it reaches rural areas as well. It will ensure that banking becomes simpler and may in the long run make people independent about managing their finances.”

Some thorns too

However, as with all technology, it is not quite a bed of roses all the way. Though most ATMs have swipe card technology, those that require users to insert cards are often known to gobble up cards or make incorrect transactions. As Venugopal, an accountant at WW Shipping points out, “Once I lost my card at another bank's ATM. I had to write numerous letters and visit both banks many times, before my card could be returned.”

Instances of ATM's processing the transaction, without dispensing cash is also an issue that many users face.

Some customers face problems when the machine takes back the cash, if one does not take it out in a specified time limit.

Bharat, a sales executive at Oracle contends, “I lost nearly Rs. 1,500 in the process. It took me numerous phone calls and a week before the money was credited back to the account.”

On these issues, Raghunath contends, “You have to accept that it is a machine and does suffer from occasional glitches. In case of any error, the banks do ensure that no customer is put to inconvenience. As far as security is concerned, it is one of the most secure transactions on the planet.

When he launched the machine in 1967, Barron would not have realised that his invention may at a later date herald the beginning of the end of hard cash.

An ATM is probably the easiest and secure manner of conducting financial transactions

It allows you access to money anywhere and round the clock

It has ensured that one can travel without huge amounts of hard cash

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