Contrary to the impression given by the ‘new model every six months’ rate of innovation, growing since the early-2000’s, there is an argument that the last real innovation was the publicization of the Internet and everything since then has merely been an improvement of existing technology, true innovation is a very long and difficult process. There is an impression that the automobile just sort of appeared one day in the 1920’s and we have used it ever since. In actual fact, not only was the initial reaction to cars amused at best and dubious at worst, the technology actually existed in prototype form since the 1840s. It took nearly one hundred years not only to get a commercially viable version of the ‘horseless carriage’ but for society to adjust to such a radical change, most of the world having gotten along just fine with horses and ships for several hundred years. Another surprising member of the it-will-never-work club is the ATM.

The original ATM

The original ATM was called the Bankmatic, the first automatic bank machine was invented by George Luther Simjian. An Armenian refugee who was sheltered in America in the midst of the Armenian Genocide and held some 200 patents over the course of his life. Many regarded him as a sort of a latter-day Thomas Edison. While it is difficult to nail down exactly when the first ATM was installed, the online sources ranging between 1920 and 1939 and many of them of dubious origins – there are Nazi lizard-people in freezers under the Pentagon if some corners of the Internet are to be believed – it can be ascertained by connecting various dots and crunch available numbers that the first hole-in-the-wall to give out cash happened between the First and Second World Wars – impressive in any case – and was installed by what would become Citibank in New York City.

A pop not a bang

Not quite sharing Simjian’s enthusiasm for the invention, the bank agreed to give the machine a six month trial. Sadly, the grumpy nay sayers turned out to be correct and most people did not use the machines, going into the bank instead. The exact inconvenience the machine was meant to eliminate. What Simjian apparently failed to take into account was that as many humans like convenience there is also an ingrained, psychological resistance when presented with something new. While common now, an ATM at this time would hold a similar shock as a train in the 19th century or a telephone earlier in the 20th century. There are stories of writers who refused to use word-processors or computers well into the1990s and sometime not even then, authors such as the Humorist P.J. O’Rourke and Science Fiction author William Gibson still use typewriters.

Unexpected outcomes

During its initial six-month trial period, the only people who used the ATM on a regular basis were prostitutes and gamblers. Folks who would not likely to be welcome in a respectable financial institution and were able to overcome any uncertainties that may have been present about the new technology for the sake of easy, discreet banking services.

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Trevor McNeil
Trevor McNeil spent much of his childhood playing video-games on early-form personal computers back when the disks were literally floppy. He attended the University of Victoria, completing a degree in Social Science with a concentration in Technology In Society, while also writing for the campus newspaper. He has written articles for such diverse publications as Humanity Death Watch, PopMatters and Perfect Sound Forever. He is a veteran of numerous “watershed moments” in the history of technological development and firmly believes that Han shot first.

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