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A Barclays employee using an early computer
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The Great War was a dark chapter in our world’s history. But the scale and speed of innovation, across technology and medicine in particular, both during and immediately following the war years, left a legacy of capability and provided a catalyst for unprecedented invention throughout the rest of the twentieth century and beyond. Today, that spirit of innovation is revolutionising the way we live.

Of technology and science

The technological advancement that saw the move from mounted cavalry to tanks in just three years led to much more productive innovations after the war. World War I was the first time that armies were able to utilise electrical technologies - including lighting and radio - the impact of which was most profound in aviation.

The US Army introduced the first two-way radios in planes during WWI and by 1916 this technology had advanced such that technicians could send a radio telegraph over a distance of 140 miles. In 1917, for the first time, a human voice was transmitted by radio from a plane in flight to an operator on the ground.

Advert for Barclaycash machine

Radio became an essential tool for communication during the war years and though largely off-limits to the public, the roots of commercial radio lie here. In the US between the cessation of hostilities in November 1918, and the end of the civilian radio restrictions in 1919, there were scattered reports of military personnel firing up transmitters in order to broadcast entertainment to the troops.

In 1916, the invention of an ultrasound transducer able to detect both distance and direction turned the hydrophone – a microphone capable of working underwater invented in 1914 - into the sole method for submarines (themselves first widely developed during WWI) to detect targets while submerged. Even with the introduction of sonar technology, hydrophones remain useful today in marine research and search and rescue operations.

The scale and pace of advancement in science and medicine during the early part of the last century can also be attributed in large part to the pressures imposed by WWI. Marie Curie – the first female winner of the Nobel Prize – spent the war years developing a mobile X-ray machine.

By the end of the war 18 of her “Little Curies” were in operation, a huge advance for field-based medical care. And the discovery in 1914 that blood could be prevented from clotting if mixed with sodium citrate, plus the benefits of refrigeration, were huge breakthroughs that paved the way for blood banking.

Plastic surgery, too, owes much to medical advances during the war years when the practice of skin grafting was first used to treat the millions of ‘broken faces’.

Barclays advert promoting technology in the bank
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Of man and machine

Machines capable of mass production that were developed during the war revolutionised industries in the post-war years. One hundred years on, the world is a vastly different place.

In 1914, there were less than 20,000 cars in the whole world. Today there are approximately 1 billion. The global population was 1.7 billion people versus over 7 billion in 2014. And the Eiffel Tower is no longer the tallest man made structure in the world. Thirty nine per cent of the world’s population now use the internet, 77% of whom are in the developed world.

Innovation and technology is changing how we live, behave and interact on a daily basis but this level of change – and the reluctance that often accompanies it - is not new.

Sir Herbert Hambling, Deputy Chairman of Barclays, 1924

Sir Herbert Hambling, Deputy Chairman of Barclays, 1924

In 1924, Sir Herbert Hambling, Deputy Chairman of Barclays, spoke of the new world born as a result of the industrial revolution. While acknowledging that there were downsides, he credited modern industrialism with bringing about a significantly higher standard of living than ever seen before and suggested that the sheer scale of population growth made any thought of reverting to old ways impossible.

I have no sympathy with the attitude of mind that is always looking back to ‘the good old times’. I am a believer in the present, and even more in the future.
Sir Herbert Hambling, Deputy Chairman of Barclays, 1924

Now, as it was then, a fear of change is natural, but failure to adapt to advances in technology, whether on the part of businesses, governments or individuals, is not an option. It is this spirit that saw Barclays trial the first adding machines in Lombard Street in 1914, a precursor to the digital journey we are on today. 

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Capturing this spirit of innovation at Barclays

Banking and information technology have been inextricably linked throughout human history, from the invention of writing – cuneiform evolved to record trades – to the stock ticker, to internet and mobile banking, and high frequency trading.

Driven by consumer behaviour, Barclays first embarked on its digital journey in 1961 when it opened the UK’s first computer centre for banking in London. Automated branch book-keeping was introduced in the Cavendish Branch that same year and in 1967 the bank unveiled the world’s first ATM, offering ‘Barclaycash’ from its branch in Enfield, London. In 1995 Barclays was the first bank to launch a website.

Today, Barclays’ reports a 60% year-on-year increase in ‘digital footfall’. On average, people now use mobile banking twenty four times a month.

The power of technology increasingly means that banking is no longer the sole preserve of traditional banks. Last year PayPal processed $315 million dollars of payments daily. In the same time Amazon transacted $24 billion of payments for other sellers in addition to their own sales.

Mobile phone technology is behind much of the change in the way we bank. In the UK there are now more mobile phones than people while in little over a decade, Africa has become the second most connected region in the world by mobile subscriptions. M-PESA, a mobile payments tool initiated in Kenya, is now actively used by 18 million people. In East Africa, mobile banking has leapfrogged traditional banking, introducing a new way to exchange money for previously unbanked consumers and in Europe, Barclays Pingit became the UK's first person-to-person mobile payments service when it was launched in 2012.

Contactless payment technology has also exploded in popularity with 61% of people preferring to pay with card rather than cash. In October 2013, Barclays joined forces with the Royal British Legion to facilitate the first ever contactless Poppy Appeal – an annual fundraising drive in the UK in support of wounded soldiers and their families. Barclaycard donated 400 mobile card payment terminals across the capital to drive donations from the public by using just their debit cards. Watch the video below:

Living up to the legacy

The Great War created a need for innovation at pace and scale. In the century since, innovation has continued apace creating a world which our predecessors would scarcely recognise. What they would recognise, however, is that the technologies that succeed, and which transform lives, are those that are firmly grounded in human needs. The challenges we face today are, for the most part, less brutal, but maintaining the spirit of innovation and responsibility so visible during the war years remains critical to the success of business and society.

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Timeline of Barclays' innovation


Barclays opens the UK’s first computer centre for banking in London


Barclays unveils the world's first ATM


Barclays launches first banking website


Barclays launches Pingit - the first person-to-person mobile payments service


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Barclays history

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Barclays timeline: 300 years and counting

Explore the last 300 years of Barclays history with our interactive timeline

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