A half-century ago, Donald Wetzel was standing in line at a bank, waiting to cash a check. After driving 20 miles from his office on his lunch break, then waiting in a slow-moving line, he grew frustrated. And he thought, There must be a better way to do this.
Less than a year later, the first Automatic Teller Machine, or ATM, was un-veiled at Chemical Bank in Rockville Centre, and banking was forever changed.
“I know what tellers do — they cash checks and take deposits,” said Wetzel, who was an executive at Docutel Corporation in Irving, Texas, at the time. “About 97 percent of their time is spent doing that. It seemed like a machine could do that. That’s how I first got the idea.”
In the fall of 1968, Wetzel explained, there was no branch banking, so if you needed to get cash or deposit a check, you not only neeed to visit a bank, but it had to be the bank where you held an account. So he went back to his office, explained his idea to the engineers and got to work on what would become the ATM.
“The biggest problem we had was to have the machine make sure the card could identify the correct customer,” Wetzel said. “That’s how we eventually came up with the magnetic strip you see on all plastic cards now. We were the first company that commercially used it, I think. Machines were not online on that time, so PIN numbers had to go on the strip. We came up with a way of scrambling data so no one could decode it.”
He added, with a chuckle, “To the best of my knowledge, nobody ever broke the code.”
Docutel’s parent company, Recognition Equipment, had a financial relationship with Chemical Bank, according to Wetzel, which is how Rockville Centre was chosen to be the home of the first ATM in the United States, at the bank (now Chase Bank) on North Village Avenue. It became available to the public on Sept. 2, 1969.
A special ceremony was held on Sept. 6 at the bank. Wetzel, 94, flew to New York with his daughter to celebrate the milestone with local elected officials and executives of JPMorgan Chase.
“A statement was put out on that day that read, ‘Our bank will open at 9 a.m. and it will never close again,’” Racquel Oden, of JPMorgan Chase, said at the event, “and because of the invention of the ATM, that statement is still true today.”
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran referred to 1969 as a “seismic year,” and noted that the lunar module that put men on the moon that same year was also built on Long Island.
“You started a true revolution, and think of how the technology has evolved since then — it’s incredible,” Curran said to Wetzel. “But it wouldn’t have happened had you not started it.”
Mayor Francis X. Murray said that he remembered when Merrick Road was one lane each way, and also recalled the ATM being installed, when he was 18. He marveled at how it took off.
“The ATMs are part of the fabric of America,” Murray said.
Oden noted that there are now 16,000 ATMs across the JPMorgan Chase network alone.
“It shows that one person can change the world with a little bit of determination,” State Sen. Todd Kaminsky said.
Town of Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen presented Wetzel with an ATM card — as opposed to a key — to the Town of Hempstead. “You brought forward a revolution in banking that has made all of our lives easier,” Gillen said.
“I had no idea this was going to happen,” Wetzel said. “The ATM is something I’m very proud of, and I must admit, it has succeeded way beyond the expectation we had when we first went to market with it.”
He added, “We were just looking to have a product that was successful and brought profit to our company. We didn’t realize we were really changing the banking industry.”