The Fascinating History of ATM Machines

Author Justin Gilmore

Most of us are no doubt familiar with ATM machines and have used them for years without a second thought. But have you ever stopped to think about how the automated teller machine came into existence? The history of the ATM is actually a lot more interesting than most people realize.

The first thing to know about the history of the ATM is that there isn’t one single inventor. Some people will give credit to Scottish inventor John Shepherd-Barron. However, it’s more accurate to say that the ATM was developed by combining the features of several notable banking machines. Some of these machines could dispense cash but not accept deposits while others could only take deposits without dispensing cash. Over time, banks and inventors were able to create machines that could do both, giving us the modern ATM.

One of the first banking machines that would eventually give birth to the ATM was invented by an American named Luther Simjian, the owner of over 100 patents. Simjian’s 132nd patent was a machine called the Bankograph, which could accept both cash or checks as bank deposits but didn’t dispense cash. The machine utilized a small camera that would take a picture of every deposit, in part to help convince people that it was safe to use.

In 1960, Simjian convinced a New York bank to install a few of his Bankographs. However, the machine never caught on with the general public. It was used primarily by gamblers and prostitutes who wanted to avoid interacting with a bank teller at all costs. About six months after Simjian’s Bankographs were placed around New York City, they were removed due to lack of use.

It wasn’t until later in the 1960’s that people started to come around on the idea of self-service banking. By this time, self-service gas stations, automated public-transit tickets, and vending machines had started to become more common, making people more open to the idea doing their banking without having to wait in line at the bank.

Around this time, Shepherd-Barron had his idea for a machine that could dispense cash the way vending machines dispense candy. Popular London-based bank Barclays was the first to utilize Shepherd-Barron’s machine. In lieu of the ATM cards we use today, Shepherd-Barron’s cash machine used paper vouchers with radioactive ink in order to withdraw money. At the time, there was a withdrawal limit of £10 at a time.

In 1969, American Donald Wetzel introduced a machine similar to the one Shepherd-Barron helped develop in the U.K. The biggest difference is that this one actually used plastic cards akin to the ATM cards we use today. A branch of Chemical Bank in Long Island was the first to use Wetzel’s invention. However, it still took some convincing for the bank to go along because people were hesitant to use a machine that handles their money.

It took a series of ad campaigns during the 1970’s to finally make people feel at ease with using machines to handle their money and banking matters. The best known came from Citibank, which spent $100 million in 1977 to install ATMs throughout New York City. At first, people were hesitant to use them, at least until a blizzard dropped 17 inches of snow on the city. With the banks closed for days, people were forced to use them. Citibank then used pictures of people using ATMs amidst the blizzard in their “The Citi Never Sleeps” campaign, which helped jump-start the ATM craze.

From there, the popularity of ATMs grew to the point where they are today with roughly two million of them worldwide. Of course, with the growing use of credit cards and debit cards, ATM use has started to decline. However, they do remain a necessary part of our lives. With modern ATMs having new features, increased functionality, and improved security, we seem to be entering a new chapter in the fascinating history of ATMs.

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