5 fun facts about the ATM, in honor of its 50th birthday

The surprisingly fascinating history of ATMs
The surprisingly fascinating history of ATMs

They're as common as bathrooms and, at this point, about as vital to everyday life: ATMs, or Automatic Teller Machines, which date back to 1967 and which, in their current form, enable consumers to withdraw and deposit cash, transfer money, check balances and balance checks, all without setting foot inside a bank.

In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of this glorious invention, here are five facts that perhaps you didn't know about ATMs.

1. ATMs were invented by ... well, actually, that's kind of a long story

In its story of the birth of the machine, The Atlantic spreads the credit around in several different directions, noting "three independent efforts, each of which entered use in 1967: the Bankomat in Sweden, and the Barclaycash and Chubb MD2 in the U.K." skims past those European efforts to credit to "Don Wetzel, an executive at Docutel, a Dallas company that developed automated baggage-handling equipment," who, it says, "is generally credited as coming up with the idea for the modern ATM." His version, which could do nothing but dispense cash, debuted on September 2, 1969, in New York City.

The Wikipedia entry for the ATM, however, tartly disagrees, saying that "it is widely accepted that the first ATM was put into use by Barclays Bank in its Enfield Town branch in north London, United Kingdom, on 27 June 1967." The entry draws on a delightful BBC profile of "The Man Who Invented the Cash Machine," John Shepherd-Barron, who, while he was in the bath, had a eureka moment.

"It struck me there must be a way I could get my own money, anywhere in the world or the U.K.," Shepherd-Barron tells the BBC. "I hit upon the idea of a chocolate bar dispenser, but replacing chocolate with cash."

An ATM is shown at company headquarters for the PNC Financial Services at One PNC Plaza in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Getty Images

And, although an account by the Smithsonian gives credence in a general way to the Barclays version of events, it says that the brainstorm-in-the-bath part is bollocks. "It's a good story, although it's almost certainly not true – 'absolutely rubbish,' laughed professor Bernardo Batiz-Lazo, professor of business history and bank management at Bangor University, Wales, and the co-author of a book on the history of the ATM."

Instead, Batiz-Lazo went even further back and "pointed to American Luther George Simjian's invention of the Bankograph in 1960, machine that would allow bank customers to deposit checks and cash into a machine and that spent a short time in the lobby of a New York bank." Unfortunately, the Smithsonian notes, that version "didn't catch on: 'The only people using the machines were prostitutes and gamblers who didn't want to deal with tellers face to face,' Simjian supposedly said)."

2. Shepherd-Barron's wife inspired him to invent the PIN

The BBC calls the invention of the four-digit Personal Identification Number, or PIN, the "by-product of inventing the first cash machine." It reports that "Mr. Shepherd-Barron came up with the idea when he realized that he could remember his six-figure army number. But he decided to check that with his wife, Caroline. 'Over the kitchen table, she said she could only remember four figures, so because of her, four figures became the world standard,' he laughs."

3. The first ATMs would only give you the equivalent of $14

Those were the original Barclays Bank machines, which dispensed £10 or about $14. Nowadays, the most you can get is $3,000 from a Chase ATM or $2,000 from a PNC machine, depending on the kind of account you have, according to GOBankingRates.

Most banks, that finance site reports, put the upper limit at $1,000, but for some, including HSBC, it's as low as $500, and in the case of First Citizen's Bank, only $400.

4. ATMs are everywhere

ATMs' popularity took hold in the 80s, and now there are over three million ATMs around the world, including one as far away as Antarctica. Someone installs a new machine about every three minutes.

5. ATMs made banks popular

In the pre-ATM world, millions of Americans didn't bother with bank accounts, the Smithsonian reports. They received their salaries in cash and then paid their bills with, well, bills. But ATMs made banking far more convenient — and, also, kind of cool.

Using banks became the norm, and their popularity became so entrenched so quickly and that it persisted even after banks started charging customers fees to use the machines in the 1990s.

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