John Shepherd-Barron passed away several weeks ago at the age of 84. Few people know his name but many people know about and use his famous invention: the Automated Teller Machine, or ATM as we have come to know it. The first machine was installed in a branch of Barclays Bank in London in 1967 although an earlier prototype was invented and patented in 1939 by another innovative thinker, Luther Simjian. That earlier – and low-tech model – was installed in a New York bank for six months and was ultimately removed because there was little demand for the device from bank customers who didn’t want to trust their money to a machine.
Interestingly, and as we know from many other inventions, those innovative ideas came not from within the industry in which it was used, but from the outside. Neither Shepherd-Barron nor Simjian worked for the banking industry when they invented the variations of the device which today has an installed base of 1.8 million units worldwide. That, according to the ATM Industry Association (you didn’t know there was such an industry association?).
The inspiration for Shepherd-Barron was simple enough – one Saturday in 1965 he got to the bank too late to make a withdrawal. Being a creative type, he wasn’t content to simply accept the inconvenience and is said to have used the analogy of a chocolate bar dispenser to develop the idea for a cash dispenser. "Well, yeah…" we might say now looking backwards in our brilliant hindsight, but it was his acting upon the obvious that led him to sell the idea to a company called De La Rue Industries which then created the machine for testing at Barclays and the rest is history, as we say.
Unquestionably, the ATM is a marvelous invention and the world is a better place because of it. At least my world is. But the ATM has spawned a particular spoken solecism that is truly cringe-worthy and which needs to be to be addressed head on by all decent people of good intention. I’m referring to ATMs being called "ATM machines." No. No way. No how. Not ever. ATM means "Automated Teller Machine" so the phrase "ATM machine" means Automated Teller Machine machine. An old Monty Python sketch referenced the "Department of Redundancy Department" and that’s what we’re talking about here.
I’ve seen many signs over the years in gas stations or other businesses that state "ATM Machine here." And I regularly hear highly paid newscasters utter that redundant but repugnant phrase. Even one of the websites I visited when researching this piece – eHow.com – uses the phrase "ATM machine" not once or twice but 10 times on a single page.
In our modern world of ambiguity, moral relativism and shades of gray, this is an issue that clearly requires us to draw a line not in the sand but in concrete. So I’m advocating public caning and six months of community shunning for anyone found guilty of using that expression. We must end it now or we run the risk of linguistic devolution or worse. Empires have fallen for less.
But the insidious Department of Redundancy Department violations don’t end there. The invention of ATMs has of course required us all to have a Personal Identification Number, or PIN, which in turn has lead many, many, many (yes, that’s a lot) people and businesses to refer to "PIN numbers." Here’s some breaking news - the word "number" is already included in "PIN" so we don’t need to say it twice. Let’s review the rules one more time – they are quite simple. No. No way. No how. Not ever. I hear this violation of common sense regularly on automated phone trees for businesses ("Please enter your PIN number…"). In fact, I’ve kept a card I received in a United Airlines Red Carpet Club a few months ago which provides access for free WI-FI through T-Mobile. The instructions on the back of the card refer to "PIN number" three times. I hope their pre-flight checklists are more precise.
Oh, and our cars have VINs not "VIN numbers." And in our homes we might have DSL, but we most certainly don’t have a "DSL line." And we don’t need to say "Please RSVP" because, well you probably get it by now.
So Mr. Shepherd-Barron, thank you posthumously for your invention. Now it’s our turn to make a difference by eliminating these phonetic fallacies.
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Mike Hoban is a senior consultant for a global talent management consulting firm and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org