The Infrastructure Behind ATMs

While originally being concentrated in bank branches and operated just for the owning bank, ATMs quickly became a business in their own right.

ATMs are a fascinating example of a pattern we see a lot in finance: an internal operations improvement which was built into a business which eventually begat an infrastructure layer that may be a much bigger business. And for all their ubiquity, almost no one, even people professionally involved in finance, understand how they work.

The first automated teller machines, which debuted in the late 1960s, were, as the name suggests, strictly cost-saving devices for bank branches. Branches exist as sales offices but have incidental cash-management functions. The denser depositors are around a branch, the more transactions happen during peak windows like e.g. the morning commute and lunchtime. The more transactions you need to support in a window, the more tellers you need to employ. Tellers are both surprisingly inexpensive relative to the degree of trust placed in them but surprisingly costly relative to occupations like e.g. cashiers which look outwardly similar. Banks have long wanted to control the costs of the teller base.

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