£50 Note Featuring ‘Father of Computer Science’ Enters Circulation

The new £50 note featuring the face of mathematician and ‘father of computer science’ (and Bletchley Park code-breaker) Alan Turing has entered circulation.

Turing’s Birthday

The note, which was announced in July 2019 and finally entered circulation last week to coincide with Turing’s birthday, means that all new UK banknote denominations are now made of plastic.  The old paper £20 and £50 notes won’t be accepted as payment in shops from October next year.

ACE & Bombe

As well as the 1951 photo of Turing’s face, the new £50 note also features his Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) which is credited as being the first full specification of an electronic stored-program all-purpose digital computer, and drawings of the electro-mechanical Turing-Welchman ‘Bombe’. Although the British ‘Bombe’ was based on an existing Polish cypher-machine, its initial design was produced in 1939 by Turing at Bletchley Park. This was one of the tools used by Turing and the top-secret Bletchley Park team to break the Enigma-enciphered code messages, thereby benefitting the allies and shortening the war by years.

Father of Computer Science

After studying at King’s College Cambridge, in 1936 Turing published his paper “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem”, with which Turing proved that his “universal computing machine” could perform any mathematical computation if it were representable as an algorithm. This, plus his work developed at Bletchley Park is why Turing is widely thought of as the father of modern computer science.

Who Uses £50 Notes?

Although featuring Turing on a banknote is thought to be long-overdue recognition of a person whose work was of worldwide importance and that Turing was wronged by his 1952 conviction for “gross indecency” and subsequent ‘chemical castration’, the denomination of the note has highlighted questions. For example, with cash usage in decline anyway (despite claims that there is high demand for notes), and very few people using £50 for retail purchases, and the former chief executive of Standard Chartered bank, Peter Sands, being reported as describing the £50 note as the “currency of corrupt elites, of crime of all sorts and of tax evasion”, most people in the UK are likely to have very few and very brief encounters with the new note.  Back in 2018, the future of the £50 note, as well as 1p and 2p coins was discussed in a government review.

Cash Usage In Decline

Even before the pandemic, cash use was in decline thanks to the convenience of contactless payments. With ‘contactless’ being preferred over cash during the pandemic, this has hastened the decline of cash use in developed countries. For example, in October 2020, a survey by Nationwide Building Society revealed that by that point in the pandemic, the average respondent had gone over six weeks without using cash and that the lockdown led to 27% of respondents using mobile payments and 25% to use online or mobile banking for the first time.  Also, in the first week of lockdown, 23 March, 7.15 million contactless payments worth £77.27m were made by Nationwide customers.  As lockdown progressed, there was a substantial increase in contactless payments to 10.31 contactless payments worth £128m in the week beginning 25 May 2020.

Access To Cash research from 2019 showed that cash usage appeared likely to end by as soon as 2026, although notes and coins may still be used in 15 years’ time, but only for an estimated 10% to 15% of transactions.

Cashless Would Not Favour Already Disadvantaged Groups

Even though the move towards cashless may sound convenient to most members of society, it should also be remembered that many poorer and older members of society (and those with mental health challenges) rely on cash, may not have a bank account, and may suffer more hardship if cash was accepted in fewer places.

Also, businesses in rural areas have always found it more difficult to go cashless in preference of digital payments due to those areas being less well served by broadband and mobile connections.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

It is good that the UK has given some more recognition to the achievements of Alan Turing (and his Bletchley Park team), and in addition to his 2013 posthumous apology and royal pardon for his conviction for gross indecency, featuring him on the note is another way to acknowledge how his treatment during his life was unfair.  Even though there are claims that there is still huge demand for notes, most people and businesses rarely use £50 notes.  There are also many different studies confirming a decline in cash usage in favour of alternatives such as contactless which is more convenient for users and businesses, can save costs, and allow faster trading in business premises. With so many more of us now opting for online shopping, this also favours cards over cash. The pandemic has undoubtedly forced consumers to rely more upon contactless, digital, and online payments, and has forced people to try new payment methods that they may prefer going forward.  This means that businesses can expect (and should plan for) a growing preference by customers to use contactless, digital, and online payments.

Listen to more about the ideas and life of Alan Turing in this podcast

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