First ATM Makes Public Debut - 9/2/1969

US History |


An ATM (automatic teller machine), also known as a cash machine, is now a common electronic device on the American landscape. The machines are available outside banks, in bars, in hotels, in airports, at malls, at gas stations, and in many retail stores. The ATM enables customers to perform financial transactions, making the tedious tasks of day to day life generally more convenient. Those of us who were alive in the 1970s remember having to rush over to a bank to withdraw money, before the bank closed at 3 pm. 

On September 2nd 1969, America's first ATM opened for business, at Chemical Bank in Rockville Center, New York. This machine was only able to give out cash, but later versions of the ATM also performed other functions, such as accepting checks and issuing account balances. Other cash machines already existed at the time. The world's first was probably the one installed in London in 1967. But many people claim to have placed the world's first ATM machine.

The ATM performs many of the functions normally handled by human bank tellers. In 2005, an estimated 170 million Americans over the age of 18 had ATM cards, which they used at least a few times a month on average. There are now nearly 3 million ATMs installed all over the world. In fact, there is a new ATM being installed every five minutes. They even have drive thru ATMs, so you don't have to leave your vehicle to get the cash. Still, no official estimate exists regarding the number of cash machines in use worldwide.

Don Wetzel is generally credited with conceiving the idea for the ATM. He thought of it while waiting on line at a bank. Others believe the invention was first dreamed up by John Shepherd Barron. Personally, I think the original idea belongs to Isaac Asimov. In the middle of the 20th century, he wrote a science fiction story about an illiterate man of the future, who could not figure out how to slide his plastic card into a wall, punch in a secret number, and get money out. However, he did know an obscure and archaic skill called writing. But apparently, no one ever learns to write in big, bad, futuristic, 21st century America. 

During the 1990s, banks started charging fees to use their ATMs, if you were not already an existing customer, and sometimes even if you were. Also, ATMs became hot spots for crimes, especially in places that were remote or not well lit. Criminals also found ways to steal people's personal identification numbers (PIN), by looking over their shoulders, or in some cases, installing fake machines. Some criminals steal the actual cash machine itself, sometimes ripping it from the wall with a truck. Cash machine manufacturers recommend that a vault be attached to the floor to prevent this type of theft. Still, there was at least one case reported where criminals tunneled into the floor.

Eventually, city and state governments passed legislation, such as New York's ATM Safety Act in 1996, requiring lights, surveillance cameras, reflective mirrors, and locked entryways to automatic teller machines. 

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