It wasn’t the lead story in any newscast, or even an item, but in case you missed it, this week marked the 50th anniversary of the first ATM. Can you imagine a time you couldn’t drive, or walk up to a financial R2-D2 to grab some cash for the weekend…when people actually used folding money?
The occasion sparks one of those memories that helps you remind yourself that you, indeed, paid your professional dues on the way. It was in 1974. I worked at WMBO-AM in Auburn, N.Y., about 25 miles west of Syracuse. Auburn was a town back then of about 35,000 people and home to a giant state prison known as the joint where inmates pounded out the Empire State’s first license plates. It was also a rough place. The prison was so close to the station that when I told a crappy joke on my morning drive time show, which I did often, you could hear the guys inside yell, “you suck!” Nice to be recognized.
One way the station made some money was by selling what they’d call a “program length” commercial…basically a remote, hawking a store or a product. I did one for three hours once at Rondina’s furniture store promoting an upright vacuum cleaner with a bag that looked like a pair of denim jeans.
One this cold day, the Marine Midland Bank coughed up a few grand to have me do my show outside next to its newfangled contraption that would allow customers to drive up and do their banking with no human interaction. The name ATM hadn’t yet come into use. They just called it an “automated teller.” For three hours I stood in the freezing cold yapping about the thing that would not yap back, accosting drivers who stopped to struggle with the new technology. When I attempted to stick my mic in their cars asking them how they enjoyed the new experience, some gave cogent answers, others believed they were being robbed of the cash they just received from what some called “that goddamned money vending machine.” Luckily, no weapons were drawn, or fired, although I had to jump out of the way several times to avoid being run over. Perhaps the most harm I suffered was breathing in carbon monoxide for three hours, which provided me some insight as to the life of a New York State Thruway toll taker. Since there was no delay, whatever the folks said was aired, thus giving the nice people at Marine Midland some rather unfiltered feedback as to their new gizmo.
Fast forward to 1987 when I was employed as a correspondent with CNN. I traveled to Greensboro, North Carolina to catch up on how some folks from Vietnam were settling in to their new lives in the U.S. We followed a gentleman to the bank where a volunteer was demonstrating to him how to use an ATM to make a deposit. You could tell that between the language barrier and the unfamiliar technology this would take some time. Indeed, he filled out the deposit slip and placed it, and a check into the envelope provided. The volunteer then instructed him to slip the envelope into the slot. He gave her a very skeptical look, then did as he was advised. Sure enough he placed the envelope in the slot where it quickly disappeared from sight. The poor man’s face turned red, his lips quivered and I detected a tear from one eye as he turned to the volunteer and quietly pleaded, “where my money go?” Fifty years later, we’re all asking the same question.