The 24-Hour Banker

Now that practically everything in life is a 24-hour-a-day proposition, we forget that there used to be such a thing as "banker's hours," and many of them were spent waiting in line. It was in just such a line that a Dallas marketing executive named Don Wetzel was standing impatiently in 1968 when he had the inspiration that turned into the ATM, or automatic teller machine. Mechanical cash dispensers had existed in Europe. But they were clunky affairs that generally required paper vouchers that the machines, in a foreshadowing of ATM headaches to come, would "eat." Wetzel, with the help of two engineers from Docutel Inc., developed an ATM that operated with reusable plastic cards. Their magnetic strips contained a personal code that the user had to enter on a keyboard, along with instructions on what the computer should do (anything, evidently, but break a 20). The first such ATM debuted in 1969 in Rockville Centre, N.Y. But true networking didn't take hold until banks hooked up to powerful mainframes in the mid-1970s. What started as a vehicle for "emergency cash" then became a way of life: there are now 425,000 around the world. And they're already dispensing movie tickets and phone cards.