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.”

As one media outlet put it: “Swindon is one of those barometer towns – so representative of the nation as a whole that, one suspects, every other person is an opinion pollster or product trialist.”

The upshot was that if the ground-breaking Mondex card worked in Swindon it would work anywhere. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t.

So that was it then… Swindon would become the first town in the world to use electronic money. And it did.

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.”

“Mondex Fever Grips Swindon” we trumpeted as the £50 million project went live on Monday, July 3, 1995. The world’s media, with an arsenal of bulky equipment in tow, noisily gathered outside the shiny new Mondex Centre opposite HMV in Regent Street.

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 Adver.

Transforming the pedestrian thoroughfare into the scene of a jostling, unseemly scrimmage, everyone wanted to photograph, talk to and film Don: CNN, Reuters, the European Business Channel, The New York Times, The Toronto Globe, The Wall Street Journal, a Japanese network called NHK, a Japanese financial paper called Nikkei Kinyu Shimbun and a whole bunch of British media. Fernando Garcia, from the Spanish financial newspaper Expansion, admitted to us: “I’d never heard of Swindon before.”

His face and comments beamed around the world, Don appeared unflustered at the fuss and attention as he cheerfully and repeatedly waved copies of the Adver’s special Mondex Edition for the cameras.

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.

Swindon had become the only place in the world where you could buy a drink in a pub using a microchip.

Indeed, we published a totally un-posed photograph of customer Allison Reeder paying Jeff Denby, manager of the Cross Keys in Wood Street, for a beer with her Mondex card. As a marketing gimmick, 50,000 Mondex flags were distributed around town (where are they now?) More than 700 of Swindon’s 1,000 retailers adopted Mondex: an impressive tally. Shopkeepers and publicans loved it as they didn’t have to mess around with change or cart sack-loads of coins to the bank.

But the public, by and large, weren’t buying it. Swindon never became anything like a cashless society.

Mondex estimated the two-year trial would see 40,000 of us pretty much dispense with cash – at least, while we were spending it in Swindon. At its height some 14,000 “Swindonites” – as one newspaper described us – carried a Mondex card.

The cards were free during the trial but any nationwide roll-out would involve a charge of £1.50 a month. “When was the last time you were charged a fee for the privilege of using your own cash,” questioned Adver reader Daniel Keating in our letters page.

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.”

Train driver Brian King, 35, of West Swindon, said: “I like the old £20 note in the back pocket. I’ll stick with the folding stuff.”

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.

Adver reader Harry Fitchett of Wroughton was prompted to write. “Mondex had the right idea.

“You can only use the money you have stored on the card – no signature, no fuss. I want a Swindon day of mourning for the wonderful card, now deceased.” Mondex was never introduced in the UK. By and large, the people of Swindon said: “Nah.”

Over the years, however, the technology pioneered in this town has aided the evolution of the smart card. Steadily, slowly the trend appears to be growing. A new report by the Halifax says that notes and coins now account for only £17.99 of every £100 spent, down by £3.03 in a year.

But a cashless society? It’ll never happen. Too many people like me and Brian King love the feel of filthy lucre in our pockets.

  • Invented in 1990 by Tim Jones and Graham Higgins of Natwest, Mondex was an attempt to create an electronic cash card as an alternative to coins and banknotes.

It claimed to offer “all the control and flexibility you get with cash but in the convenient form of a card.”

Electronic payments were immediate without the need for authorisation checks or signatures.
Customers were issued a card containing an embedded microchip onto which money could be loaded.

They were also provided with a ‘wallet’ – an electronic device which enabled the customer to manage and transfer their money.

Cash was loaded onto the card via an ATM machine or a Mondex-enabled telephone. BT adapted 150 public phones in Swindon to dispense cash onto cards. 

The system was a joint venture between Natwest, Midland Bank and British Telecom.
Swindon was specifically chosen because it had a “population profile representative of the UK as a whole.”

The system never gained a UK launch but was acquired by MasterCard and its technology assimilated into the company’s smart card products.