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Hole in the wall

A report in the Daily Mirror pointed out that the Automated Teller Machine or ATM in Britain is 40 years old in 2007. The first withdrawal was made by the actor Reg Varney, whom some people may remember playing Stan Butler in the ITV sitcom On the Buses. He took out the grand sum of £10 in one-pound notes (a denomination that no longer exists in England, though the Scots retain it) from a machine at Barclay’s Bank in Enfield on 27 June 1967.

Experts, however, dispute this date, arguing that the machine was no more than a voucher-based cash dispenser, not a full teller system that would accept deposits as well as dispense cash (though its developer, John Shepherd-Barron, was given an OBE in the 2005 honours list). Proper ATMs, it is said, are a product of the 1970s, originally in the US. The histories say that the first US example was patented in 1973, though a prototype was installed in a bank in 1969. The first public appearance of its name I’ve found is in an advertisement in the Greeley Daily Tribune of Colorado for 24 April 1973: “After May 14th, we’ll have our automated teller machine installed for your convenience. It will handle your deposits and withdrawals quickly and efficiently.”

An ATM became known to British users as a hole in the wall. For security reasons, all early ATMs were built into the walls of banks and this suggested the name. It was borrowed from the much older term for any small or obscure place, or a dingy little business, or a place illegally selling alcohol (several entirely legitimate pubs in the UK have inherited the name, including one not far away from me in Bristol). Americans in particular will know of the famous Hole-in-the-Wall gang, based in the narrow Hole-in-the-Wall Pass in Johnson County, Wyoming, which was the hide-out at various times of Jesse James, Kid Curry, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

However, the OED’s first example of hole in the wall in the ATM sense is from 1985. That’s rather late, I thought, and went searching. The earliest I’ve been able to find appeared in an advertisement by the Bank of A Levy in the Valley News of Van Nuys, California, in 1975. The machine was both called the hole in the wall and also the A-Levy-Ator, in a punning reference to the name of the bank, presumably because it relieved the suffering of impecunious customers when its doors were closed. Advertisements by the bank a year before also mention the device, but not the colloquial name.

So is hole in the wall for an ATM actually from the US and not Britain, or did Mr Levy’s bank officers hear about it from a third of the way round the globe and borrow it for their own purposes? The latter seems by far the most likely explanation. A European model developed by IBM for Lloyd’s Bank (officially announced on 12 June 1972 according to the IBM archives) was installed in a few US sites. It may be that the Bank of A Levy learned its British slang name from IBM engineers who had come across the term in the UK. Certainly, the bank’s use of the term wasn’t taken up by others in the US. Luckily, nor was its punning precedent for naming the devices.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 7 Apr. 2007

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Last modified: 7 April 2007.