The Origins of the ATM Part 2

When Did the ATM come to the United States

When Did the ATM come to the United States?

When our last post ended, the automatic teller machine had made its successful premiere in the United Kingdom. Across the Atlantic Ocean, however, Americans were still largely unaware that this kind of technology could even exist. However, Don Wetzel, the Vice President of Product Planning at the now-defunct Texas technology firm Docutel, was about to change that.

In 1968, Don Wetzel was standing inside a bank in Dallas, waiting in line, imagining what life would be like if people did not have to wait in lines in banks. Then, all of a sudden, he could see it in his mind: the automatic teller machine.

Wetzel’s employer provided five million dollars to develop this idea. Two engineers at the company, Tom Barnes and George Chastain, worked with Wetzel to develop the product. The ATM was not such a great leap for Docutel, though, as it had worked extensively on creating automatic luggage transportation systems for airports.

The ATM prototype was finished about a year later, and Wetzel, Chastain and Barnes received the patent for this device in 1973. Several banks claim to have been the first to install this machine, but Wetzel has stated that the distinction belongs to a Chemical Bank branch in Rockville Centre, New York. Chemical Bank advertised the debut of this machine in a clever way. It announced in ads that it would open at nine a.m. on September 2, 1969, and that it would “never close again.”

Chemical Bank called its ATM the Docuteller. The machine could only dispense cash, and it was not connected to the bank’s network of computers. Unfortunately, the bank installed the machine outside. The machine was not waterproof. The bank tried to protect it from rainwater by setting up a canopy. The canopy was too high. The soaked machine suffered massive damage.

ATMs began sprouting up all over the place. That’s not to say there weren’t some snags in those early years, though. Just imagine the following issues:

  • For some banks, the cost of the initial ATMs was prohibitively high.
  • Many banks would only allow their best customers – those with the most sterling financial histories and records – to touch these machines.
  • Until 1972, a bank customer could not use an ATM unless he or she had a credit card.
  • Some customers were puzzled by the ATM at first. In Texas, an ATM refused to give money to a certain bank customer. That customer got so mad he pulled out a gun and shot the machine. Luckily, it was bulletproof.

Little by little, the ATM improved. Docutel put out a total ATM in 1971, one that could transfer money from one account to another, send money to credit card accounts, and so on. Wetzel, Chastain and Barnes also got to work on ATM cards equipped with magnetic strips. These strips proved so effective that they became standard on credit cards.

In 1995, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History officially designated Don Wetzel the inventor of the ATM, despite several people having made that claim over the years. In many ways, it’s astonishing to think about what a contribution Wetzel made to society. Today, there are more than 1.8 million automatic teller machines in existence. That number increases constantly. In fact, about once every five minutes a new ATM opens for business. The average American uses his or her ATM card between six and eight times every single month.

Of course, when you consider these statistics, you might reflect on that poor, solitary ATM in Rockville Centre, New York, standing outside, getting wet in the rain.

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