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The ATM, born on LI, celebrates 50 years

Donald Wetzel, a vice president of product planning

Donald Wetzel, a vice president of product planning at Dallas-based Docutel, uses an ATM. Credit: JP Morgan Chase Corporate History Collection

 The ATM, the ubiquitous machine that made banking 24/7 and gave customers routine access to money as long as they remembered a personal identification number, turned 50 years old this week.

It was born on Long Island.

New York-based financial giant Chemical Bank changed self-service banking forever when it installed the first ATM in the country in Rockville Centre in 1969. 

The machine was the brainchild of Donald Wetzel, a vice president of product planning at Dallas-based Docutel, which convinced Chemical Bank to use the  automated teller machine it had created. Docutel also automated baggage handling equipment at airports.

Docutel was a subsidiary of Recognition Equipment Inc., a technology automation company whose executives knew top decision-makers at Chemical, said Wetzel in an interview from his home in Dallas.

"I thought the timing was great," Wetzel, who's now 90, said. "Technologically, I had no doubt we had the ability. What was harder was getting the magnetic strips on plastic cards to be secure, so people wouldn't rip off the machines."

Wetzel said the magnetic strips back then included data such as PINs and account numbers. 

"Today, the PIN ... is on a secure computer online at a bank," Wetzel said. "There was no online back then." 

Wetzel was at Chemical the day the machine went live in Rockville Centre.

"I don't remember much about it, but I remember praying and hoping it would work," Wetzel said.

He will return to Long Island for the first time since then when Chase and the Nassau County Industrial Development Agency, which is cohosting the event, celebrate the anniversary of the ATM Friday at the Chase branch on North Village Avenue in Rockville Centre.

County Executive Laura Curran will also be on hand to proclaim the day in Wetzel's honor.

The actual anniversary is Sept. 2, but that landed on Labor Day this year.

"I'm really looking forward to this," Wetzel said. "I'm excited."

The Chemical Bank brand vanished from the American landscape in the 1990s when it merged with Chase Manhattan Bank. Back then, the two banks combined had about 1,850 ATMs. 

"The ATM is probably the biggest bank game-changer in the last century," said Reggie Chambers, chief administrative officer, consumer bank at JPMorgan Chase in New York. "It would be inconceivable to imagine what banking would be like without the ATM. Could you imagine waiting in line to see a teller to get cash?"

Chase currently has more than 16,000 ATMs across its network and said the machines can handle more than 70 percent of transactions traditionally done by a teller.

Chase said its ATMs process millions of transactions a day, and hundreds of millions annually.

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