Northern Lights: Computers and Banks in Nordic Countries

ICT the Nordic Way and European Savings Banks

by J. Carles Maixé-Altés ( Universidad da Coruña

Abstract: This paper discusses the world industry of savings banks, a genuine world collaborative consortium, through which, from the 1950s, the International Savings Banks Institute (nowadays, the World Savings Banks Institute and European Savings Banks Group) was highly active in introducing ICT to retail banking. In this environment, Nordic savings banks, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark, their Central Savings Banks and their industry associations occupied a separate place in European movements around developments of computerization and automation in retail financial services. The synergies in Nordic countries were superior to the rest of Europe and collaboration was intense. This paper highlights the leadership and the influence that the ICT development models of Nordic savings banks had on their European retail banking associates.


Review by Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo


In today’s world Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups. Swedish success stories include familiar names such as file sharing site The Pirate Bay (established 2003), video chat and calls Skype (established 2003) and music streaming Spotify (established 2008). These developments have not gone unnoticed by the media (see article by Forbes) nor by historians. There is a growing and vibrant body of systematic studies on the economic, business and technological history of Nordic computing as reflected by the fourth edition of History of IT in the Nordics (HiNC4) confrence on August, 2014. All of these HiNC conferences have been followed by an edited book of accepted papers, published by Springer’s increasingly succcessful History of Computing series (a series under the stewardship of Martin Campbell-Kelly (Warwick)).



The paper by Joan Carles Maixé-Altés contributes to above mentioned literature and was distributed by Nep-His on 2014-11-1. In it he succesfully intertwined topics of great importance which, with the exception of Scott & Zachariadis (2012 and 2013), have been dealt in isolation, namely: not for profit financial institutions, technological innovation in the late 20th century and international competitive collaboration.

Maixé-Altés gained access to previously unexplored archival material from the International Savings Banks Institute (nowadays the World Savings Banks Institute and European Savings Banks Group). The focus of this first instalment of Maixé-Altés’ research deals with the efforts by Nordic savings banks (i.e. Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden) to gain scale in information and comunication technology (ICT) through co-operation. Savings banks were born in 1810 in Rothwell, Scotland as part of the 19th century “thrift movement”. This organizational form was replicated across Europe and British colonial dominions. Today savings banks have dissapeared from Australia, New Zealand, the USA and most European countries. This regardless of whether they had narrow (e.g. UK) or broad operations (e.g. Sweden, Spain). However, they remain important players in retail banking in Germany, Norway and Portugal.

Denmark, Norway and Sweden are considered to be the Scandinavian countries and the Nordic Countries are these three plus the Åland Islands, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Iceland and Greenland.

Denmark, Norway and Sweden are considered to be the Scandinavian countries and the Nordic Countries are these three plus the Åland Islands, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Iceland and Greenland.

Analytically, this paper proposes a double point of view. Firstly, Nordic countries are considered early adopters of computer technologies and, simultaneously, ingintegral to the processes of dissemination and appropriation of foreign business models. Secondly and whilst detailing the efforts by Nordic savings banks on computarisation, Maixé-Altés reminds us of the heteregoneity of organizatonal forms in retail finance during the 20th century. Also how the democratic principles behind these particular form of corporate governance led to an “open door” policy for the sharing of best organizational practice as well as to collaborate across borders with “sister institutions” to faclitate their economic and social objetives. But as was pretty much the case across retail banking in the 1960s and 1970s, savings banks in Nordic countries adopted computer technology with the twin hope of increasing efficiency of operation and counter attack the growth of commercial banks within the market for retail deposits.

With those analytical aims in mind the paper structures in four main sections while preceeded by an introduction and finalised by a concluding section. Maixé-Altés starts his story with the first steps of co-operation within national borders. These led, for instance, to the establishment of “central savings banks” or institutions that help gain critical mass in whole sale financial markets. This to substantiate his claim that collaboration is well embeded within savings banks. He then moves to explore co-operation within electronic data processing in general while providing details of an “emblematic case” of this collaboration: Nordisk Spardata.

J. Carles Maixé-Altés

J. Carles Maixé-Altés

Critique / Comentary

I very much liked the paper. However, I will advance a couple of ideas which future work on these archives could bear in mind.

First, Maixé-Altés’ emphasis on changes in hardware as an index for co-operation in data processing suffers from a common shortcoming in this literature (an issue shared by many econometric studies of technological change in financial institutions), namely its focus on back-office transaction processing and an over reliance in hardware and central processing units while “missing .. the choices being made between operating systems, programming languages, network technologies, databases, or the source of application software.” (Gandy 2013: 1228). More could then be said about these choices and the formation of standards and computer networks.

Secondly, I fundamentally disagree with Maixe-Altes’ claims around the use of “real time” computing. As I have argued in Bátiz-Lazo et al. (2014) as well by Martin (2012) (and evidence in Scott & Zachariadis (2012 and 2013)), in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s distant devices and computers could be connected but the nature of the banking business meant that form of “on line” communitation still required human intervention and therefore it was not “real time”. Moreover, Haigh’s (2006) seminal contribution documents how database and database management systems were still in its infancy in the 1970s. This effectively meant there was no random access to electronic data. Updates had to be run in “batches”. Full digitalization of customer accounts was “work in progress” and very much an effort that starts in the late 1950s in Sweden (as documented by Bátiz-Lazo et al., 2014) but doesnt materialise until at least the late 1980s.

There is some indirect evidence of this in, for instance, the fact that in the 1980s, human tellers at retail branches supplied indiviuals with balance of available funds “as of last night”, that is, once a central processing unit had been able to gather and sort through all the transactions earlier in the working day (Indeed, I have personal recollections of programming with COBOL in the mid 1980s and having to script sorting programmes). Another telling example is that automated teller machines (ATM) relied on combination of information stored on the activation token’s magnetic stripe and a list of overdrawn or otherwise delinquent and cancelled accounts stored on a cassette tape inside the machine itself (see image below). In short, Maixe-Altes’ claims around the use of “real time” computing’could be tone down a notch.

Back of RT650 by Burroughs Corp. (undated)

Back of RT650 by Burroughs Corp. (circa 1980). Source: Charles Babbage Institute (Ascension 90, Series 75, Box 44, Folder 2).)

In summary, Maixe-Altes’ is an interesting part of the history of computing, banking and financial history. It points out there is much more to be said about understanding the technologies of the late 20th century as well as the economic history of competition, cross-border collaboration and not-for-profit financial institutions. On top of this Maixe-Altes ventures into histories of networking and real-time computing, and, more importantly, puts the historical discussions in the context of banking strategy. As such, an intersting new addition to this growing literature.


Bátiz-Lazo, B., Karlson, T. and Thodenius, B. (2014) “The Origins of the Cashless Society: Cash Dispensers, Direct to Account Payments and the Development of On-line, Real-time Networks, c. 1965-1985”, Essays in Economic and Business History 32(May): 100-137.

Gandy, A. (2013) “Book Review: Technological Innovation in Retail Finance (2012, Routledge)”, Economic History Review 66(4): 1227-12278.

Haigh, T. (2006) “’A Veritable Bucket of Facts’:Origins of the Data Base Management System”, ACM SIGMOD Record 35(2): 33-49.

Martin, I. (2012) “Too Far Ahead of Its Time: Barclays, Burroughs and Real-Time Banking”, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 34(1): 2-16.

Scott, S., Zachariadis, M. (2012) “Origins and Development of SWIFT, 1973–2009” Business History 54(3): 462-483.

Scott, S., Zachariadis, M. (2013) The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT): Cooperative Governance for Network Innovation, Standards, and Community. London: Routledge (Global Institutions Series).


One thought on “Northern Lights: Computers and Banks in Nordic Countries

  1. J. Carles Maixé-Altés

    Very interesting thoughts from Bernardo about changes in operating systems, programming languages, databases, and software as a whole. This is a stimulating field to analyse influences and diffusion of ITC developments in banking. From the point of view of the computer programs and applications, the sixties and seventies were the times of non-standardisable software; namely ad hoc programmes which were the common practice in the context of second and third generation computers. Every bank works with its own EDP resources or shared resources, at this point the collaborative experience in Nordic countries (and European savings banks) was significant. Savings banks built up in the course of seventies substantial know-how in the data processing sector and acquired a considerable potential in term of the software used for their own business operation and the services offered. Certainly new work at WSBI archive could suggest new issues.

    I think it is fair to say that on-line real-time (OLRT) developments would be a remarkable manifestation of some diverging paths in the computer world. Retail banking is a good example of this. Savings institution discussed it along the seventies. In Nordic countries, Federal Republic of Germany, Austria and Spain some big banks, data centre and industry associations had a great debate around two possible solutions for EDP networks: batch processing system (off line) and on-line real-time processing. There were different options based on a cost-benefit approach. At the mid of the decade using the IBM series 370, the UNIVAC 9400 and others machines, and programmable teller terminals some savings banks (using collaborative strategies) introduced partially, but increasingly OLRT processes in its retail operations. Savings banks industry offers a broad variety of practices in this field and we could obtain suggesting conclusions working on.


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