Friday, June 4, 2010

The Dead Beat

Hands up who loves reading obituaries? I have to admit I'm a shameless wallower in short biogs of the recently departed. As a national newspaper hack a few years ago, often left in charge of the newsdesk after everyone had a) gone home or b) gone to the pub, I used to have a surreptitious glance in the file where the obituaries of The Queen Mother, now gone but then still fuelled by cigarettes and gin, the Queen and a few other notaries were held, ready to go when they went. Sometimes obituaries end up print by accident, when the subject isn't even dead. My favourite story is Dave Swarbrick, the folk musician, who was reported to have died of a chest infection in the Midlands. In fact he was alive and well enough to joke that, 'It wasn't the first time I've died in Coventry.'

The best obituaries over here appear in The Daily Telegraph. The house paper of retired colonels in the shires, firm believers in our duty to Queen and country, what, it features all kinds of folk other newspapers wouldn't touch, mainly ex-military men  who became embroiled in all kinds of derring-do that we fiction writers would dismiss as too fantastical. Almost supernaturally politically incorrect figures such as Lieutenant Colonel John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming 'Mad Jack' Churchill who, during World War II, while bombs and bullets rained and reigned, was prone to 'charging up beaches dressed only in a kilt while brandishing a dirk, killing with a bow and arrow, and playing the bagpipes at moments of extreme peril.' It's fair to say he struggled to adapt to life in peacetime after that, and took to surfing for kicks, and was often heard pining for more conflict: 'If it wasn't for those damn Yanks, we could have kept the war going another 10 years!' was a frequent complaint of his, as he caught another pipe.

I was reminded of the wonder of obituaries when I read recently of John Shepherd-Barron. Not a household name. However, most if not of all us will have used his most famous invention - the ATM machine (or hole-in-the-wall to us Brits.) Like all the best ideas it came to him in the bath (I often wonder how much inspiration I miss out on by taking showers...). He'd been to the bank on a Saturday to cash a cheque back in the 1960s, when banks closed at lunchtime on a Saturday. He arrived one minute late to find there was no chance of him getting his cash. Much aggrieved, he sloped off to home to scratch his head (and wash his back). He came up with the idea of a vending machine that issued cash rather than  chocolate bars.

The Telegraph described him with beautiful simplicity as 'quite the ideas man.'  Shepherd-Barron envisaged a six-digit PIN number but, on the advice of his wife, who said most people could not remember so many numbers, this was reduced to four. (God bless you Mrs S-B.) He pitched the idea a senior executive of Barclays Bank to listen to his pitch. According to Shepherd-Barron, 'I asked him for 90 seconds of his time to share the new idea I had. His reply came after 85 seconds. He said, 'If you can make this device you are speaking about, I will buy it right now.''  The deal was done, and the first cash dispenser appeared in Enfield in north London in June 1967.

A Barclays executive who was supposed to make the first ceremonial withdrawal had trouble mastering the PIN system, making him the prototype for many of us, so for the benefit of the watching media the transaction had be faked.  'We finally bogused it from behind,' Shepherd-Barron said later. He had a way with words, too.

His eyes turned to the US and big money. However, the US regarded it as 'a wacky European idea that wouldn't sell in America.' But then the Bank of Pennsylvania placed an order for six machines, and the idea went global. There's now an ATM in Antarctica. Shepherd- Barron once said: 'In northern Thailand I saw a man get off his ox cart, go and get money out of the wall and then get back on his cart. It really brought home to me that I had come up with a worldwide idea.'

The device was never patented. Doing so would have involved disclosing the coding system. Apparently - and this is the sort of great thing you learn from obituaries - the machines have a high level of security but are not perfect and have been targeted by many a criminal. In Ireland, for example, gangs regularly stage smash-and-grab raids, using the unsubtle but often effective method of using industrial diggers to rip entire machines out of the wall.

His money made, Shepherd-Barron retired to Scotland, where he continued to dabble in the ideas game, with lesser success. A snail farming project and a fish farm both ran into problems, the latter when voracious seals preyed on his salmon.

Ingenious to the last, he came up with a device which emitted the sound of killer whales to drive the seals away. The seals were undeterred. He described them thus: 'They're clever scoundrels – it's only ended up attracting them more.'


Dan - Friday


  1. Was it Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain who said "The reports of my death are exagerated"?


  2. If every particle has an anti-particle, I'd like an opportunity to smash the one that came up with the ATM transaction fee. We should commemorate Shepherd-Barron's passing with a week during which people are given the choice between psying the transaction fee or listening to sixty seconds' worth of killer whales.

  3. Dan, in Irish Catholic Boston, the death notices (they'll be no need of fancy words here) were, for many, the only reason to buy the paper. The paper was, and is, the Boston Globe. No on of any taste would risk posting a notice in the Herald, locally called the rag sheet, which is a lower class version of the New York Post.

    When I was growing up, the death notices were read before anything else. That section of the paper was referred to as the "Irish sports page". Wakes and funerals were, and still are, taken very seriously by the Irish and those of their descendants who had the importance of honoring and praying for the dead drummed into them from childhood. Even after I was married, and long since old enough to read the death notices myself, I would get a call from my uncle Ed who would open with, "Did you get the paper today?". That was code for "there is a wake that requires your attendance."

    More than 30 years after his death, the new code among his children and nieces and nephews is, "Did you get a call from Edmund?"
    We know where we have to be, Rosary in hand, and there are a few silent prayers for Edmund tossed into the mix, too.


  4. Anonymous, It was Mark Twain who said it; he was traveling in Europe and heard he had been pronounced dead in an obit in New York. Beth, the Irish Catholics in the Bronx also call it the Irish sports page. Woody Allen has famously said that first thing every morning, he checks the obiturary page in the New York Times to make sure he is still alive.

    My husband, likely thanks to his Grandmother McGowen's genes, is an avid reader of the Times obits and reads me lovely bios of fascinating people we had never hear of. So, Dan, four hands go up in our house. And thanks for the stories we would not have seen here in the colonies.

  5. Hi all -

    Thanks for the comments. 'Irish sports page' - I love it.

    Tim, that is one annoying charge, but thankfully all now but abolished here in the UK.



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