The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them. . . . Saint-Exupery, Wind, Sand and Stars, 1939
Where did the phenomenon of the automated teller machine come from? Did it burst upon the technological scene like some rabbit pulled out of a magicians hat, or was it as the courts say, premeditated? Usually, many inventors contribute to inventions, albeit only one or two get ultimate credit. In the case of the ATM, Don Wetzel, Vice President of Docutel, the company that developed automated baggage-handling equipment, was the co patentee and chief conceptualist of the very first successful ATM. The idea came to him, he said, while standing in line at a Dallas bank in 1968. It took five million dollars to develop the ATM and the very first one was installed at a New York based Chemical Bank located in Rockville Center, Long Island. The two other inventors listed on the patent were mechanical engineer, Tom Barnes and electrical engineer, George Chastain.
They key word about Wetzels creation is successful, as he was not the very first perspicacious soul to ever think of the idea. In 1939, a man named Luther George Simjian patented a not so workable version of what the modern world has come to know as the ATM. It was called the Bankmatic automated teller machine and it was the most famous yet least successful of his many inventions. Simjian was a brilliant, creative man, who even as a young child was drawn to optics and photography. His first commercial invention was the self-posing portrait camera, which would allow a subject to look into a mirror and see the same pose that the camera would take before the picture was snapped. He also invented a flight speed indicator for airplanes, an automatic postage metering machine and the teleprompter.
But Simjians brainchild would have to wait another thirty years for someone to adapt it to the current needs of the banking world. ATM machines were originally walk-ups on the outside of the bank. Canopies were installed to protect them from the rain and snow. Unfortunately, in some instances, the canopies were placed too high, causing extensive water damage, and that old song about the day that the rains came took on new meaning. (It sounds like the leaky sunroof on a French car I once owned, but thats another story.) The first ATM machine was a cash dispenser only. The next version, created in 1971, was a total teller, which is the ATM we know today, taking deposits, transferring funds, making cash advances to credit cards and other things of that nature. These earlier machines were off-line; meaning that money was not automatically withdrawn from an account. Accounts were not at that time connected by a computer network to the ATM. Banks gave ATM privileges only to credit card holders with good banking records. Wetzel, Barnes and Chastain developed the first ATM card, which had a magnetic strip and a personal ID number so that cash could be withdrawn.
In the 1970s, the ATMs were viewed by banks largely as a way to save money by reducing the need for tellers. To encourage customers to trust the new technology and overcome their trepidations about putting their checks into a machines slot rather than a tellers hands, banks originally did not charge customers any service fee. In time, some banks started charging customers for not using ATMs each time a customer used a teller for a service that could be performed by an ATM. Banks that embraced the ATM profited handsomely and soon their officials recognized that many people would be willing to pay some small amount of money to use them, especially when they were travelling. Fortunately for the banks, this period coincided with an era of high anxiety about crime, a fear of carrying around large sums of money and movies of the same name, (High Anxiety), produced by Mel Brooks.