Meet the man who invented America’s first ATM 50 years ago (2024)

Three times per month, Donald Wetzel heads to a drive-up automated teller machine near his Dallas home.

“It’s convenient and fast, and I’ve got my money and I’m gone,” the 90-year-old tells The Post.

But he keeps his own accomplishments humble during these trips. Wetzel invented America’s very first ATM, which debuted 50 years ago on Sept. 2, 1969, at the former Chemical Bank (now a Chase location) in Rockville Center, Long Island.

“I’m proud that it all worked out well and I feel good I had the idea, but a lot of people have had a lot of ideas,” he says. He’s even quick to add that his wife, 87-year-old Eleanor, has never once used an ATM.

“She’s afraid that the machine will take her card and not give it back to her,” he quips.

Many don’t know the nation’s first ATM took its maiden voyage on Long Island.

“I was surprised and I’m a Long Islander,” says Harry Coghlan, 54, CEO and executive director of the Nassau County Industrial Development Agency. “I was also very surprised that it was 50 years ago … [it’s] an innovative technology that changed the banking industry — and it changed how we consumers act.”

Despite the technological advancement, the 1969 premiere of the outdoor machine was kept low-key — and Wetzel was present for it.

“They advertised it and said, ‘On September 2, our bank will open at 9 o’clock and never close again,’” he says.

But at 10 a.m. Sept. 6, Nassau County will honor Wetzel with a ceremony for the anniversary at the bank, located at 10 North Village Ave.

However, the ATM that appeared that day in Rockville Centre wasn’t the first in the world. According to Smithsonian Magazine, cash dispensers rolled out in Sweden and Britain in 1967. In 1969, when this Long Island one opened, another debuted in Tokyo.

Still, the birth of the American ATM owes its origins to Wetzel being stuck on a Dallas bank line before departing on a business trip in 1968.

“It happened to be right at noon on payday for a lot of workers,” he says. “The line was long and it was taking forever to get money of an account that I knew was there. All they had to do was give it to me. I didn’t want to wait a half an hour for them to give it to me.”

So over the next year, Wetzel — working for a financial transaction systems manufacturer named Docutel — teamed with a mechanical engineer, Tom Barnes, and an electrical engineer, George Chastain, to develop the machine. They never intended to render bank tellers obsolete; it was a way for banks to keep visits efficient.

The development came in two phases. The ATM that premiered in 1969, smaller than the ones used today, just dispensed cash and printed a receipt. In the second phase, a “total machine” that was unrolled in 1971 released cash, received deposits and transferred funds between accounts. Both relied on bank cards with magnetic strips, which stored account information.

“For me, that’s one of the proudest things I feel about the ATM — that we really did our homework,” Wetzel says. “We knew what functions the machine had to perform.”

The reason it rolled out on Long Island? Docutel was a subsidiary of a company named Recognition Equipment, Inc., which had an established relationship with Chemical Bank after previously doing business together.

“If they’re interested, let them take a crack at the new machine,” recalls Wetzel.

The team’s original intent was for this ATM to be used only in the US by American customers. At the time, they never considered international use — mainly because it would have been difficult for banks to access money from international accounts.

After the Long Island release, Wetzel says, it took a year for him to sell the new ATM to banks. Bankers were wary that a machine would make them lose money, or they would be targets for frequent robbery. But Wetzel, a salesperson by trade, convinced them the ATM would allow for the creation of new accounts, and more business.

“After that, it was fast,” he says.

But the greatest impact of the ATM, Wetzel says, is that it was the first time people interacted with proto-computers. And 50 years on, it’s still a valuable tool for those looking for cash in a hurry.

“We were hoping that people were smart enough, would realize the value and they’d use it,” he says. “And it worked.”

Meet the man who invented America’s first ATM 50 years ago (2024)


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