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Monday, May 04, 2009

Thirty-five years B.C. (before computers)

I don't know why I'm posting this. Nobody on the web is old enough to be able to answer the question that occured to me while standing in a bank queue the other day. But anyway.

What did banks do before computers?

Nowadays we accept that the teller will be able to tell everything about us after a few clicks. It wasn't always thus. What did they do in the mid-70s when you wanted to know what your balance was? I remember going into banks and asking that very question. How did they answer it? Did they disappear into the back and come back with the answer on a scrap of paper? I seem to remember that they did. And if so, where did they get that information from? Was there a Sgt Wilson figure somewhere in a morning coat sitting behind a huge ledger recording the comings and goings on everyone's account with a quill pen?

Nowadays we take it for granted that everything that can be recorded is being recorded somewhere, generally without actual human intervention. The idea that there was a time when nothing happened unless a human being was commanded to make it happen is something I already find amazing.


  1. Before computers banks used to take three or four days just to take your money off you and put it into your account before they could make it available to you to withdraw it.

    Nowadays of course it only What? Oh.

    thechangingman (47 and 1/4)

  2. For Deposit Accounts, they would take your bank book and then update it from their ledgers - I remember seeing this done as a wide-eyed 8 year old boy in 1970m in the Mount Florida branch of The Royal Bank Of Scotland. Aged 22 in the same bank, I had to make my case for £200 overdraft (with agreed terms of repayment) from Mr. Peach, the back manager who put the fear of God into me about the terrors of being in debt. The case I had to make included explaining my fixed and variable outgoings, and my signed agreement that I would no longer be in overdraft after 4 months. I was at this point earning a salary of around £7,000 : although the bank would obviously earn money from making the overdraft facility, he needed to be convinced that I wasn't going to waste the money and end up in the poorhouse. How different the world would be if more banks treated their customers like that!

  3. Anonymous11:10 am

    I worked for a bank in the late 70s. Each day we received an envelope full of microfilm slides that had all of the branch customer's balances displayed-these were for the previous day though- I don't think it was possible to get an up-to-date balance.

  4. By your mid-seventies example, it strikes me as quite likely that they would have been using computers. Proper quasi-mechanical computers, the size of your garage, with water cooling and three phase power, located in catacombs miles away. In the back rooms of your bank, a teletype machine, restricted for use by trained operators, producing the slips of paper to be ferried back to front of house.

  5. You didn't need to ask the bank how much money you had. You simply totted up the balance on your cheque book stubs. If you'd remembered to keep them up to date, that is. If you didn't - well, you only had yourself to blame.

  6. My mother still has a bank statement from about 1958, handwritten in flowing script detailing all transactions. There were about eight in a month, so it wasn't that onerous, but presumably that was done for all customers, so each bank branch must have had several people fully employed just writing out statements.

  7. I presume banks used to be like doctors still are - with a wall full of paper files in brown sleeves.

  8. I remember the 3-day waiting period before any money you paid in had "cleared" - cleared what I don't know, probably the time it took for some pinstriped little old man to receive your deposit slip and write it in a ledger with a quill pen.

    Does anyone know who their bank manager is these days? I used to have regular contact with mine when I was a poor student always begging for an overdraft. I used to write letters to him! Now I don't even have my own "branch"

  9. This might have the answer from 1964.

  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  11. Hand written ledgers until early sixties when somebody came up with a primitive type-writer thingy that could count.

  12. Anonymous1:34 pm

    "Was there a...figure somewhere in a morning coat sitting behind a huge ledger..."

    The short answer is yes there was.

    When I was a student in the early 70's I had an account with the Royal Bank of Scotland (yes, the very same, and no silly acronyms then, thank you very much), and before they would cash students' cheques, you had first to go to another counter where sat the aforementioned figure with the huge ledger. She would check your cleared balance in The Book, and stamp your cheque with "OK" or something. Only then could you go to the cashier and get your money.

    That's how careful banks used to be. For some reason, they didn't go broke so much back then, either.