The future of money is here now and in my pocket

Last week I made my first ever cashless payment using my shiny new debit card. The transaction itself was something of an anti-climax, but those additional four little curved white lines on my card brought back memories of the future of money.


Many years ago I went for a job interview with a company called Mondex, who were developing a cashless payment system they called the ‘future of money’.

Mondex logo from 1993

Mondex logo from 1993

Mondex logo from 1997

Mondex logo from 1997

I didn’t get the job, but I have been watching out that future to arrive ever-since.

And now finally it is here, just 21 years after its initial announcement, and twenty years after a three-year trial began in the unlikely location of Swindon in Wiltshire.

As with so many new technologies, such as mobile phones,  the early hype did not match the reality. But gradually the impact became much bigger than predicted by the so-called futurologists. Now many of us are dependent on our phones, and I wonder how long it will take before cash begins to disappear from our pockets, and we become reliant on the little chips in our cards.

Below is one of the first newspaper reports on the Mondex card, and a reminiscence of the ill-fated Swindon trial from the Swindon Advertiser earlier this year:

`smart’card to wipe out cash – 8 December 1993 – The Evening Standard

THE National Westminster Bank, Midland Bank and BT today announced plans to introduce a new plastic `smart’ card which puts Britain ahead in the race to create a cashless society.

The Mondex card, which will be offered to more than 11 million customers of the two banks within two to three years could eliminate the use of money for many everyday transactions within a few years.

Instead of carrying hard cash, customers will be able to use the card to pay for anything from a newspaper to a drink. The cards are charged with cash electronically either down a domestic phone line, from a payphone, or through the bank’s existing hole-in-the wall cash machine network.

The cards will dramatically reduce the Pounds 4.5 billion of hard money in circulation in Britain. They will also have the capacity to carry five different currencies at once, making it possible for cardholders to move freely from country to country without going to a bank.

How smart was that? – 21 May 2014 – Swindon Advertiser
BARRY LEIGHTON revisits the electronic cash revolution of 1994…

TO borrow a line from an old HG Wells novel, it was the shape of things to come… a society where grubby notes and pockets full of change had become a spent force – something to reminisce about alongside the eight-track cartridge, loon pants and the Watneys’ Party Seven.

And in all the towns in all the world, Swindon was where it would all begin. The “electronic cash” revolution, that is. At least, that was the plan. Twenty years ago this spring financial institutions around the globe cast their collective eye upon our unlikely Wiltshire town.

Swindon in 1994 was chosen for a unique experiment that, it was envisaged, would bring to an end to more than 1,000 years of tradition – the way people bought and sold goods. A new company called Mondex had created a “smart card” that would see the pound in your pocket vanish. Carrying cash would become a thing of the past. You won’t need the stuff anymore. No more holding folding.

In the not-too-distant future, everything you bought – from a packet of chewing gum and a round of drinks to a bag of fish and chips – would be done with an electronic card. But before going global Mondex needed some guinea pigs to practice on. A community with which to experiment. They chose 170,000-population Swindon. Why? Because we were deemed ‘average’ – a typical British town, in terms of age and social make-up, whose spending habits could be scrutinised and analysed and regarded as “the norm.”

It took just over a year to install Mondex in Swindon – a project that saw hundreds of shops, restaurants and pubs gear up to receive payments for the “cash-on-a-card” system by training their staff to use new-fangled, hi-tech Mondex gadgets (see panel).

“Farewell to filthy lucre” said the Adver as one shopkeeper, eagerly embracing the concept of a cashless community, branded conventional notes “nasty, dirty and unhygienic.” Mondex predicted: “The people of Swindon will go down in history as pioneers.”

The focus of everyone’s attention, bizarrely, was one of our paper vendors, retired railway worker Don Stanley, 72, who made history by accepting the world’s first electronic cash transaction – 28p for a copy of the Advertiser.

As the months rolled on more and more Mondex machines and appliances sprang up like an alien invasion. They were everywhere: in telephone boxes, public car parks, shops, post offices, on the buses. Keen to make it easier for us give them our money, even bookie shops got in on the act.

Mondex tended to polarise opinion. PE Ault of Devon Road wrote to the Adver saying: “It is a very smart card indeed, I am delighted.” Pinehurst pensioner John Archer opined: “It’s a load of rubbish. The hassle of messing around with a card is a waste of time.”

In July 1998 Mondex said “Thanks a million Swindon” and were off. Trials were continuing elsewhere.

“Mondex devices evaporated from our streets, car parks, shops, buses and telephone boxes as if they had never been there..


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