Today, we think nothing of walking out of our houses on a Friday night without a penny in our pocket. The reason is that there is a network of ATMs around the globe: In the UK and U.S. alone, there are around 150 ATMs per 100,000 people—plenty to go around. According to analysts RBR, 2.25 million machines dispensed cash automatically at the end of 2010, and that’s expected to grow beyond 3 million by 2016.
But although we use them without a second thought, precious few of us know how they came to sit on our high streets and in the walls of our banks.
Luther George Simjan’s Bankograph
City Bank of New York installed a machine called a Bankograph in 1961. This wasn’t an ATM as we know it, though: rather than dispensing cash, it acted as an automated way to deposit cash and checks. One thing that it did share with the machines we use today was its general look and design.
Transported back to the early 1960s for the six months the Bankograph was available (it was removed after it proved unpopular to account holders, probably because it was new and untried), a modern-day person would likely be able to recognize it as something similar to today's ATMs. Blocky and boxy, it cemented the design standards for companies that would follow.
John Shepherd-Barron’s chocolate dispenser
According to John Shepherd-Barron, the reason we have ATMs is his love of chocolate and him running late one Saturday. He managed to miss the midday closing time of his local bank on a Saturday in 1965, meaning he couldn’t take out any cash for the weekend. He got thinking that cash ought to be as easy to get as chocolate bars from a dispensing machine.
Shepherd-Barron’s inspiration struck in the bath, where he was relaxing after a long day working for De La Rue, a global currency printer. Switching out chocolate bars for cash, the laborer took his idea to his bosses, who in turn presented them to Barclays Bank. The company was keen, and on June 27, 1967, the Enfield High Street branch of Barclays began dispensing cash, £10 at a time. Users inserted a single-use paper voucher (which would be mailed back to the customer to prevent fraud) and keyed in a four-digit code that we know now as a PIN, and they were given their money.
Meanwhile, in Sweden…
Nine days after Barclays unveiled their Enfield cash machine, Nixdorf, a Swedish bank, installed their first ATM dispensing kronor. They called their machine the Bankomat, a name which lives on in many European languages (including the Italian bancomat) as the term for ATMs.
From that point on there was a flurry of machine unveilings: Westminster Bank in the UK allowed their customers to use their own-branded ATMs in 1968. Around the same time Japanese savers could withdraw yen from their own machines, and a year later the first US-based machines came to market in Rockville Centre, Long Island, New York. Chemical Bank, the owners of the new automated teller machine, declared that “our bank will open at 9:00 and never close again.”
Attaching ATMs to an internet connection became paramount to enable bank balances to update automatically and dynamically. The added complication of this caused the market to narrow somewhat in the coming decades, with two companies, Diebold and NCR, becoming the front runners and providing most of the machines used. They were replaced by other, nimbler manufacturers with better-looking and performing machines, and today ATMs are everywhere, always on, and constantly being used.
There are machines on U.S. Navy frigates and at the remote McMurdo research center at the tip of Ross Island in the Antarctic. Children can buy toy versions of ATMs to play with, and though we often bank online through our web browsers, there’s still a need, early on a Sunday morning or late on a Friday night, for the glowing slot of the ATM.