New York: An automated teller machine. The cash machine. In Britain, a cashpoint. ATMs, known for spitting out $20 bills (and imposing fees if you pick the wrong one), turn 50 years old this year. They’re ubiquitous—and possibly still a necessity, despite the big changes in how people pay for things.
It was a radical move when Barclays Plc installed cash machines in a London suburb in 1967. The utilitarian machine gave fixed amounts of money, using special vouchers—the magnetic-striped ATM card hadn’t been invented yet. There was no way for a customer to transfer money between accounts, and bank employees tabulated the transactions manually at the end of each day.
As the ATMs became familiar, though, they changed not only the banking industry but made people comfortable interacting with kiosks in exchange for goods. Now that means getting movie tickets and boarding passes, self-checkout at grocery stores, and online shopping that brings products to your door with a few clicks. All are based on the idea that people can handle routine transactions by themselves without a teller or cashier.
“The ATM tapped into that innate force in people that gives gratification for doing a task on their own and it grew from there," said Charles Kane, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
It was a radical concept at the time. The ATM wasn’t the first self-service device — vending machines and the automat had been popular before. But those dispensed items people could hold in their hand.
Bernardo Batiz-Lazo, a business professor and ATM historian (yes, they exist!) at Bangor University in Britain, said early users of automated tellers were often checking their balances twice: once to see how much was in their account, then again after withdrawing money to see if it registered.
“They were popular, but it took a long time to slowly convince customers to learn about ATMs and use them regularly," Batiz-Lazo said.
For the banking industry, ATMs meant banks could be in thousands of places at once, not just in branches, and earn billions of dollars in fees from non-customers. Banks used to staff dozens of tellers at each branch to handle routine transactions, now many staffers work on other tasks, like sales or account maintenance.