James Goodfellow: Inventor of the PIN

ATM Pin Keypad

Categories: Technology

ATM keypad 1 by William Grootonk is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

14 January 2016


Software engineering in today’s world is big business, and software engineers have become our everyday heroes. Zuckerberg has become a household name, supermodels are leading girls into the world of coding, and Academy Awards are being won by software engineers for computer-generated cinema. Programming is becoming cool, and so it should.

But let’s not forget that less than fifty years ago, software solutions to our everyday problems were seldom the first port of call. Take, for example, the problem of the early 1960s, where weekend closures of banks limited a working person’s access to their own accounts. During this time of early software innovation, several science-fiction worthy ideas were floated, including linking bank accounts to an individual’s unique fingerprint, voice recognition or even retinal pattern. These, along with countless others, were dismissed as impractical and costly, leaving the problem of how customers could access their money outside of opening hours.

And so enters, solution in hand, our unlikely hero; development engineer James Goodfellow. Assigned the project by then employers Smith Industries Ltd., Goodfellow designed a software system that could accept a machine-readable encrypted card, identifying the individual, and providing them with their money on demand. The PIN or Personal Identification Number is a short code entered by the cardholder into a cash dispenser that, if found to correspond with the specific encryption on the card, will activate the machine, and allow a withdrawal to be made.

The initial software that Goodfellow used to bring his idea to fruition is still very much evident today, being developed and delivered to the millions of ATMs around the world, and facilitating more than a billion ‘chip and PIN’ sales every day. So ubiquitous is the technology in current card security measures, that Intelligent Environments, a UK based tech firm, have even posed the possibility of exchanging the traditional four-digit code for a series of ‘emoji’ characters to identify individuals. Whether high-street banks will choose to adopt this millennial-targeted approach to security, however, is yet to be seen.

Software innovation continues to impact almost every aspect of modern life, making payments faster and more secure, facilitating fast and efficient travel around cities, and connecting us with people the world over in unacknowledged ways daily. So this month, while we celebrate the possibilities that the software of the future presents, we also say thank you to the pioneers who have got us this far.

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