Savings accounts

Meet Agent Million, the secretive keeper of the Premium Bonds jackpot


In my hand sits a tiny microchip – a fraction of the size of a postage stamp (see above) – that will decide the financial fate of millions of people across the country.

Meet Ernie 5, the latest incarnation of a machine responsible for turning ordinary investors into millionaires.

Last week, National Savings & Investments (NS&I ) announced the first two winners of the Premium Bonds £1m jackpot, chosen using the new Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment, better known as Ernie.

Launched on Budget day 1956 by Harold Macmillan, the then prime minister, Premium Bonds are generally thought to be Britain’s most popular savings account.

The original Ernie – closer to the size of a camper van – was designed by the Bletchley Park code-breaking team behind Colossus, widely credited with swinging the Second World War in the Allies’ favour. Winning numbers were chosen using the "signal noise" created by neon tubes.

It produced the first winning bond number about 16 minutes after whirring into life, but the full list of winners took a total of three days to draw, as the team of engineers needed to take breaks.

I’m told by NS&I – and this is beyond my GCSE physics to verify – that Swiss-built Ernie 5 generates random numbers by firing photons from an LED at a semi-transparent mirror. The bond numbers we recognise are produced by the pattern of photons that either hit the mirror, or manage to pass through it.

All clear?

It would have taken the first Ernie 190 days to produce as many random numbers as the latest Ernie did in 12 minutes. This extra speed is necessary because the popularity of Premium Bonds has soared in the interceding years.

Today, nearly 80 billion bond numbers have a chance of winning any of more than three million prizes (from £25 to £1m) each month.

Classic Premium Bond posters


Million-pound prizes were introduced in 1994 and are delivered by several NS&I staff members, known only as Agent Million.

In an exclusive Telegraph Money interview, one of the current crop spoke to me. He refused to give me his name, lest his identity be compromised. He claims only his wife knows his secret vocation as "there’s only so many times you can say you’re staying overnight for work", though I can reveal he has a Lancashire accent.

It is the job of Agent Million to track down winners. In one case, this took him to a rendezvous in an airport as the winner was on a round-the-world trip. In another, a winner’s husband answered the door but strict rules mean the agent was unable to explain why he was there.

"It can get quite awkward", said the agent. "He really wanted to know why I wanted to speak to his wife. I couldn’t say who I was."

Agents must also verify winners’ identities before asking how they want to receive their million, either into their bank account or placed in an NS&I account.

A Shropshire firm of financial advisers – no doubt keen to snare some millionaire clients – is currently on hand if winners need more guidance on how to spend or invest such a large sum.

Unfortunately, the dawn of the new Ernie doesn’t make winning any more likely. The odds remain 24,500 to 1, an effective interest rate of 1.4pc.

Far higher rates of return are available, so why do we keep buying Premium Bonds?

At their launch, Labour’s shadow chancellor, Harold Wilson, decried the "squalid raffle", while the Church feared the draw would create a nation of gamblers. The huge profits raked in by today’s bookies suggest the clergy were right in part, even if the real culprit is the rise of internet betting.

The technology has moved on, but our yearning for the big win hasn’t. If banks and others seriously want to raise Britain’s dismal savings rates, they could do worse than take notes from Premium Bonds’ masterclass in behavioural economics.


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