Automatic Teller Machines: What Do They Want From Us?
by Marjorie Dorfman

Do your recall the days when withdrawals and deposits of cash could not be made when the banks were closed? If you needed to pay off some guys in dark raincoats, it was just too damn bad. Automated teller machines offer convenience when they work and constipation when something goes awry. Read on for more understanding, less compassion and, hopefully, a few laughs in the process.

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 magician’s 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 Wetzel’s 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 Simjian’s 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 that’s 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 machine’s slot rather than a teller’s 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.

Slowly but surely, most financial institutions began to charge fees. In the mid 1980s some banks began imposing a fee on their customers for using another bank’s ATM. These so-called "foreign" fees became more common in the 1990s. Customers were told that these fees were necessary to offset the costs of the interchange, but the truth is that banks, as rich as they are, are insecure, like most of us. They feared other banks might look like greener grass to their customers and they wanted to keep them close to home. By the early 1990s, using ATMs had become an every day part of life for a large percentage of Americans. Many young people today have never experienced handing a deposit slip to a teller and asking for their withdrawals in a mixture of 5s, 10s and 20-dollar bills. ATMs have been around for thirty years, but fees, especially double fees, for using them are a more recent phenomenon.

Banks are truly amazing. What other business charges you money to get your own money back and offers no improvement or change in the process? No ATM can do more than accept deposits, transfer money between accounts and withdraw up to a maximum daily amount of cash. It can’t leap buildings in a single bound and it can’t make you any richer than you were before you decided to entrust your funds to them. And what happens when there are problems with the machine? One Sunday, I went to withdraw some money and found my ATM card being eaten alive by the slot because I could not recall my pin number. I tried a few times and I can only surmise that the machine assumed I was trying to steal my own money and meant well. In any case, there was a sudden sucking sound which brought the shark in the movie Jaws immediately to mind. I was going out of town and had to wait until I returned a few days later to get my card back. It caused much inconvenience, as I have never been taught how to communicate with an annoyed ATM machine. How can customers fight back? I’m not sure, but here are a few thoughts:

Talk softly to the ATM as you approach. All things living and of metal respond to soft tones. A lullaby might help, but that part of the research has not yet been proven. (Lab people keep falling asleep.) Never approach an ATM wearing a mask, dark glasses or carrying a weapon. The machine is very sensitive and will respond accordingly. Pretend you don’t really need the cash and that you would just like a little extra, for medicinal purposes only, you understand. Respect the ATM and punch numbers in with dignity and clarity. Will any of this help? I doubt it, but it might give you a false sense of security, which these days is just as hard to come by as your very own cash!

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2003