Payment systems in all their guises  Share

Did you know that the Scotsman John Sheperd-Barron (1925-2010) is credited with inventing the first automatic cash dispenser? The first ‘hole-in-the-wall’ cash machine was installed in London in 1967. The first banknote dispensers appeared in Belgium nearly one year later, in 1968.

The number of people in Belgium opening bank accounts skyrocketed in the 1960s, while the use of scriptural money became increasingly prevalent. Employers no longer paid in cash but transferred wages straight into their employees’ accounts.

The cheque became extremely popular as an alternative to cash payments, particularly in 1972, when Eurocheque cards were introduced, initially guaranteeing each payment up to BEF 5,000 (€123.95) and subsequently up to BEF 7,000 (€173.53). Adventurous souls striking out for foreign parts went there armed with a bundle of travellers cheques to be changed by banks in the places of destination into the local currencies.

Transfers became increasingly common. The advent of a uniform bank account number structure (the ‘3-7-2’ system) and a standardised transfer form in 1971 truly revolutionised the Belgian financial sector. This standardisation process also resulted in the creation of the Centre for Exchange and Clearing (CEC) in 1974. Among others, the National Bank Governor Robert Vandeputte played a key role in this context as an intermediary and coordinator.

Bank cards became accepted as valid payment cards, while users were advised to commit their PIN (Personal Identification Number) codes to memory, using a mnemonic if necessary. In 1980 petrol stations were the first ones to try out payment terminals, thus enjoying the benefits of having to keep less cash on the premises and continuing to operate outside working hours. Large-scale retail premises soon followed suit and succeeded in reducing the administrative burdens imposed by cash and cheques. The contemporary world is now inconceivable without self-service terminals and payment terminals.

The deferred payment credit card system is an American invention. Belgium had to wait until 1979 before the introduction of the Eurocard Belgium-Luxembourg. The credit card only really hit its stride in 1988.

Developments were particularly rapid in 1990 with the invention of the user-friendly Internet as a World Wide Web (by Britain’s Tim Berners-Lee and Belgium’s Robert Cailliau). The way Belgians make their payments has continued to evolve and new payment methods are still being developed, such as Phone Banking, the electronic purse, text message payments using a mobile phone, home banking and payment apps for smartphones. Some of these systems have now been consigned to the history books, while others have only just come into being. The definitive shift in 2014 to SEPA (Single Euro Payments Area) and the conversion of national 12-figure account numbers to a European 16-character IBAN number is a major European project aimed at creating a single market for payment systems.

If this is too much information to digest all in one go, why not pay a visit to the National Bank Museum, where some striking objects and documents can be found illustrating this theme? An easy-to-interpret timeline also helps to situate everything in chronological order. The Museum’s guided tours obviously give proper consideration to this slice of recent history. A guided tour may be booked by telephone (32 2 221 22 06), by e-mail ( or online (