Object 10: Telephone tonepad, 1988

Telephone banking tonepad, 1988

Tonepad used for accessing NatWest's telephone banking service from a dial-only handset, 1988 © RBS

This little battery-powered keypad was an early participant in the digital revolution, linking customers to their money via the phone and a central computer. From 1988, it was issued to customers of Actionline, NatWest’s telephone banking service, so that the service could be used with older dial-controlled phones. 

By the 1980s, the concept of home banking was a key ambition for banks, offering the attractive prospect of customers being able to manage their money from the comfort of their own homes using telephone, fax or – later – internet technology. NatWest was one of the first large British banks to launch a home banking service that used facilities already available in most homes – a normal phone line – rather than a Prestel terminal or other specialist equipment.

NatWest already had an extensive network of ATMs, through which millions of customers were accustomed to using a keypad to make requests which were handled by a central computer. Telephone banking was an extension of the same principle, using the phone keypad to send instructions down the line to a computer. Any request that could be made at an ATM – balance enquiries, chequebook or statement orders, or payment instructions – could just as easily be made down a phone line, with the obvious exception of withdrawing and depositing cash. 

By the 1980s, the concept of home banking was a key ambition for banks

There was just one problem. In 1988, many phones were still dial-controlled, and therefore did not make the tone-signals that the system relied upon. Even if the customer had a keypad phone in their own home, part of the point of phone banking was that services should be available anywhere, and this meant that it had to be compatible with all phones. The solution was the item shown here – a small device issued to customers registering for NatWest’s telephone banking service. It could be held up to the mouthpiece of a dial telephone, and the keypad used to navigate through the menu options. The buttons made the same noises as those on a touch-tone phone, sending a signal down the phone line that the computer at the other end would recognise as an instruction.

Dial phones eventually died out and the tonepad became obsolete, but telephone banking continued to thrive. In the late 1990s and beyond, it was joined and then surpassed by the internet as a convenient means of providing customers with home banking facilities.