September 2, 1969: First ATM opens
Anyone who’s recently accessed the local currency on a trip abroad or paid steep fees to use an ATM at a casino may marvel that there was a time when we didn’t have them. But until the first ATM opened Sept. 2, 1969, people had to make do with bank tellers or hop over to the Western Union office for a wire transfer redemption. The first automatic teller machine was a very American concept. It opened for business at Chemical Bank in Rockville Center, New York and was invented by a Dallas executive who had tired of waiting in lines. Other functions like checking balances from the screen would come later. This first day, it was all about a plastic card that could hand over money from a bank account–without any hands.
The Type A ATM inventor
Don Wetzel told some co-workers at Docutel he “thought that we could build a machine that would perform at least 90 percent, perhaps more than 90 percent, of all the transactions processed by a teller,” he explained in a 1995 interview with the curator of the National Museum of American History. From there, they quickly figured out that this would need to be an offline machine and involve a card reader. At the time, Wetzel added, “Software wasn’t there or anything like that, and the banks were not interested. They were, you know, literally up to their ears just converting from the old hand systems to the computerized version.” Cards also had to have security built-in since there was no telling how much their accounts held when they accessed these early ATMs. Docutel put $5 million into the prototype and Wetzel became the co-patent holder of the ATM in 1973.
ATMs are here to stay
There were an estimated 3.2 million ATMs globally at the end of 2015, and the number is predicted to rise to 4 million by 2021. But none of this would have happened if Wetzel hadn’t known customers and tellers alike would love the idea of ATMs. “The tellers never cross-sold to anybody,” he added. “Their mentality was: ‘You have a check, I’m going to give you some money, and I hope you go away. And that way, if you move fast, I’ll get to the next person and everybody will be happy.'”