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 smalltown during a trip. As nightfalls, your car refuses to start,you are running low on cashand the shady mechanic demandsa massive sum to get thevehicle up and running. You arealone and have no friends in thearea. What do you do? Simple.Locate the nearest ATM, pay themechanic to fix the car and driveaway. This situation was virtuallyimpossible a few years ago,when ATMs were yet to make amark in most of the country.
If you were planning a shorttrip away from home, you neededto visit the bank and stock upon cash to ensure that your tripwas not spent in long lines atbanks rather than on holiday.Seldom do we realise it, but theATM (automated teller machine)whose India-born inventorpassed away recently, haschanged our lives drastically.
Inspired by chocolate
John Shepherd-Barron hasbeen credited with creating thefirst widely-used machine fordebit accounts. Previous automatedmachines existed tomake deposits or access cashwith a credit card. Barron wasinspired by the concept of achocolate-vending machine andcame up with the idea in hisbath, a la Archimedes in 1967.
Before making their adventinto India nearly ten years ago,our only contact with ATM machineswere through the moviesand telly. There was the teenageJohn Connor in "Terminator 2:Judgement Day" stealing froman ATM and a character in thepopular sitcom "Friends" gettingstuck in an ATM.
The demystification of themachine happened much later,when almost overnight, ATMsbecame more numerous thanshops in neighbourhood stores.
On most modern ATMs, thecustomer is identified by insertinga plastic card with a magneticstrip or a plastic smart cardwith a chip, that contains aunique card number and somesecurity information, in simplerterms ensuring that as long asyou have a card and the PINnumber, you can get money atany time of the day, in any placewith an ATM machine.
Gone are the days, when onehad to stand in long queues inbanks, fill in withdrawal slips,wait for your turn, as the allpowerfulclerk processed yourrequest, gave you a token, whichyou would take and proceed tothe next counter where the tellerhanded you your money inthe denomination you specifiedat the back of the withdrawalslip or cheque. Mithun, an ITprofessional says, "I rememberwaiting at banks for cash. Theadvent of ATMs has simplifiedthe process a great deal. It notonly saves time, but allows youto deposit or withdraw cash atany time in the day."
Over the past decade, ATM'shave become an integral part oflife in urban India, especiallyamong students. "I do not haveto depend on my local guardiansor friends if I need money. I justneed to go to the nearest ATMand withdraw the amount Ineed," says Ritwik, a studentpursuing a management coursein the city. He adds, "The onlyproblem is that I often tend tooverdraw."
The utilities offered by ATMshave also increased manifold."When it started off, many machinesdid not offer facilities todeposit money and had restrictionson the amount of cash thatcould be withdrawn. A small feewas also imposed on peoplewithdrawing from other bankATMs," says Raghunath, a bankofficer at HDFC bank. "Facilitiessuch as depositing money,using it to recharge mobilephones etc are recent additionsthat have added to the ease ofservice at ATMs."
He contends, "The true worthof the ATM will be realisedwhen it reaches rural areas aswell. It will ensure that bankingbecomes simpler and may in thelong run make people independentabout managing theirfinances."
Some thorns too
However, as with all technology,it is not quite a bed of rosesall the way. Though most ATMshave swipe card technology,those that require users to insertcards are often known togobble up cards or make incorrecttransactions. As Venugopal,an accountant at WW Shippingpoints out, "Once I lost my cardat another bank's ATM. I had towrite numerous letters and visitboth banks many times, beforemy card could be returned."
Instances of ATM's processingthe transaction, without dispensingcash is also an issue thatmany users face.
Some customers face problemswhen the machine takesback the cash, if one does nottake it out in a specified timelimit.
Bharat, a sales executive atOracle contends, "I lost nearlyRs. 1,500 in the process. It tookme numerous phone calls and aweek before the money wascredited back to the account."
On these issues, Raghunathcontends, "You have to acceptthat it is a machine and doessuffer from occasional glitches.In case of any error, the banksdo ensure that no customer isput to inconvenience. As far assecurity is concerned, it is one ofthe most secure transactions onthe planet.
When he launched the machinein 1967, Barron would nothave realised that his inventionmay at a later date herald thebeginning of the end of hardcash.
An ATM is probably theeasiest and secure mannerof conducting financialtransactions
It allows you access tomoney anywhere and roundthe clock
It has ensured that one cantravel without hugeamounts of hard cash