On September 2, 1969, a new machine was unveiled at the Chemical Bank branch in Rockville Centre, Long Island, soon to be followed by similar machines located outside bank branches across the country. The machine was an ATM — an automated teller machines that allowed users to get cash from their accounts at the press of a few buttons.
At first ATMs, like all new technological developments, were curiosities, and most people still got their money the old-fashioned way. They went into a bank, filled out a paper withdrawal slip, and presented it to one of the human tellers at a window, or they went through the drive-thru bank lane, interacting with a teller remotely and getting their money via pneumatic tube delivery. But as time passed people realized those ATM machines, once you got the hang of them, sure were convenient — and quick. You could get money when you needed it and on your schedule, without being at the mercy of your bank branch’s hours.
As their usage increased, the number and location of ATMs multiplied, moving from their initial locations at bank branches to appear just about everywhere. According to the article linked above, Chase Consumer Banking alone has 16,250 ATMs, and Bank of America has even more. And as the number of ATMs skyrocketed the functionality of ATMs has increased, too, moving beyond dispensing cash to allow users to perform just about every banking-related service they might choose. Chase says its ATMs now can do 70 percent of the things its human tellers can do for its customers.
People didn’t focus on it at the time, but ATMs were a precursor of the machine-oriented, self-service movement in American business. There’s a debate about whether ATMs have ultimately eliminated human teller jobs or have spread them out among more bank branches that have been opened, but one thing is clear: banking involves much less human-to-human interaction than used to be the case. Who knows the name of their bank branch manager? That’s become true in other businesses where self-service machines have been introduced, too. And in that sense ATMs helped to pave the way for internet-based businesses, cellphone apps, and other consumer-directed options that don’t involve fact-to-face communications with human beings anymore. We’re conditioned to doing things by tapping buttons on a machine, and there is no going back.
Happy 50th, ATMs! You’ve helped to change the world, for better or for worse.