Most adults living in urban areas around the world have come in contact with an automated teller machine. For many, it represents their "bank" far more than rows of tellers standing behind tall counters.
The story of the ATM's rapid rise to ubiquity is also one of a revolution in retail banking.
It begins with the embrace of automation that characterized the mid-century economy and gave rise to vending machines, self-service gas stations and other innovations. In the case of the ATM, much of the initial impetus began with European bankers concerned about increasing unionization and rising labor costs. To economize, they solicited engineers to develop a solution for after-hours cash distribution.
In 1967, two British banks installed prototypes of today's ATM. The same year, Swedish savings banks unveiled a similar invention called the Bankomat. By 1971, manufacturers were mushrooming and building ATMs around the world, including in the United States and Japan.
These early devices were all stand-alone, clunky, unfriendly and inflexible. They could do one thing only: dispense cash when activated by a token. Some banks would keep the token in the machine and return it to the customer (by post) once the account was debited. Many machines proved unreliable: Rarely had electronic equipment been put to the test by weather in such a way. Security was also a problem, as there was no easy way to make sure that whoever deposited a token was indeed the owner of the bank account.
Chubb, the British lock maker, pioneered the use of a personal identification number. Chubb (along with several other companies) also introduced card-like plastic tokens with a magnetic strip. Yet this wasn't enough to reassure bankers.
For these reasons, the development of online communication with a central computer became an overriding concern. IBM was a pioneer in this regard. IBM started the first online trials in Sweden and followed up with an online device in Britain for Lloyds Bank in 1972. For most of the 1970s, IBM engineers worked to develop the rails, pipes and standards on which other elements of the payments ecosystem - such as credit cards and point-of-sale terminals - would eventually depend.
By the early 1980s, however, ATM manufacturers such as Chubb, De La Rue and Docutel had failed to keep up with developments in computing and electronics. Others hadn't yet achieved a critical market share. Citibank had effectively abandoned a plan to commercialize devices of its own patented design. Even IBM, which had the marketing muscle, engineering expertise and business contacts to take over the market, decided against further investment in payment technology.
Around this time, two Ohio-based companies, NCR and Diebold, were working on technology that would enable them to effectively dominate the world's supply of ATMs for the next two decades.