Surrounded by high trees and metal fences, Ernie’s home at the new National Savings & Investments offices is shrouded in secrecy.
A security barrier blocks the entrance and we are forbidden from taking photographs of the seemingly ordinary office block.
Inside, no one will tell us where Ernie is — only that he is kept in ‘an undisclosed location’ somewhere in the building.
Dream maker: National Savings & Investments’ latest premium bond picker Ernie 5 is a tiny computer chip barely one-fifth of an inch long
Ernie is the machine responsible for selecting Premium Bond winners and making two lucky savers millionaires each month. Around 79 billion Premium Bond numbers, held by 21 million savers, take part in the monthly draw.
The winning numbers are drawn using Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment — hence Ernie. This March, more than three million prizes worth nearly £93 million will be paid out.
I’ve come to Blackpool to see the new version of the machine, Ernie 5, which was used for the very first time just last week.
The original Ernie, invented in 1956 by the Bletchley Park code-breaking team, was the size of a small van, at 3 m long, 2 m high and weighing 1.5 tonnes. It used random electrical signals to generate winning numbers, but it was a slow process which took days.
Jane Comerford has broken the good news to around 180 new millionaires
Over the years, as technology has developed, new Ernies have replaced old models. Ernie 2 arrived in the Seventies and was replaced in the Eighties by Ernie 3, which, in turn, was superseded by Ernie 4 in the Noughties.
Ernie 5 is a tiny computer chip barely one-fifth of an inch long, which I can balance on the tip of my thumb. It is 21,750 times faster than the original and can generate a list of winners in 12 minutes.
I’m whisked to a meeting room to watch a dummy run of a prize draw. Two engineers bring in what appears to be a regular computer. Ernie 5 has already been inserted and the screen is bright orange.
I’m handed control of the mouse and directed to click ‘confirm and start bond generation’.
As we sit and watch a small pie chart load, I feel slightly disappointed by the lack of excitement in the process. I’d envisaged a casino slot machine with lights that flashed when a winner was chosen. Instead, the winning numbers simply appear in a box on the right-hand side of the screen.
Despite the rather dull draw, Ernie still has a huge fanbase and even receives Valentine’s cards from bond-holders hoping to boost their chances of winning.
Savers awarded a prize are usually informed by letter or email — but winners of £1 million prizes will receive a knock on the door from ‘Agent Million’.
Currently, NS&I has four Agent Millions whose identities are kept secret. I’m joined in Blackpool by retired Agent Million Jane Comerford, who spent 15 years in the role until July 2016. In that time, she broke the good news to around 180 new millionaires.
‘It can be quite challenging,’ says Jane, a mother of two from Blackpool. ‘You can’t say who you are or where you are from without first being sure you are talking to the winner. You can say only that it is nothing to worry about, but that you need to speak to them alone.’
She says many people assumed it was a prank or even a scam, but she always managed to reassure them in the end.
The original Ernie, invented in 1956 by the Bletchley Park code-breaking team, was the size of a small van, at 3 m long, 2 m high and weighing 1.5 tonnes
Her most memorable millionaire was a pensioner from Newham, East London, who won the jackpot in July 2004 with £17 worth of bonds bought in 1957.
‘Her husband, who was no longer alive, had given her the money years ago to buy the bonds,’ says Jane. ‘When I explained, she knew exactly where the bond was and pulled it out the drawer.’
Jackpot winners are given a free meeting with financial advisers, but what they do with their money is down to them.
Jane says: ‘One winner bought a canal boat and we had another lady who bought herself a new knee. Not many move house. I have had only one winner who told me they had given up their job.’
Premium Bond savers do not get typical interest payments, so depend on winning prizes. The annual prize fund is the equivalent of a 1.4 per cent interest rate.
Each £1 Premium Bond counts as one entry in the monthly prize draw, but anyone buying them today must make a £25 minimum investment — reduced from £100 last month. The total maximum investment is £50,000.
Anyone aged 16 or over can invest, and parents, grandparents and great-grandparents can invest on behalf of children.
New rules due to come in later this year will allow aunts, uncles, godparents and family friends to buy Premium Bonds for children, too.
The only person in the country who cannot own bonds is NS&I chief executive Ian Ackerley.
Over the years, the odds of each £1 bond winning a prize have increased to 24,500 to one — compared with 2,095 to one in the first ever draw.
Though the odds of winning a £1 million prize are 39.8 billion to one, they continue to grow in popularity — helped by the fact that the money is 100 per cent backed by the Government.
And, with interest rates on savings still stubbornly low, it just might be worth taking a shot at the Premium Bond lottery.