Credit Card Imprinter

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Located at a peculiar juncture in financial history, the credit card imprinter is a remediation of the printing press that makes use of the raised characters of a credit card surface to ensure the accurate transfer of credit card and merchant information free from human error. Although the mechanical process employed by the imprinter was a relatively simple upgrade of imprinting processes that gained popularity with the introduction of carbon paper as a means of producing multiple copies at a single site of inscription, the consistency and ease with which documents could be produced by the imprinter made it an ideal sight for the fusion of multiple systems of verification to be read by both humans and computers. In a financial climate whose biggest obstacles to growth were the often conflicting demands of maximizing the speed, efficiency and security of transactions, the imprinter presented an elegant solution that overlaid multiple forms of verification at a single site of inscription. The documents produced by the imprinter present crucial shifts in the cultural history of currency, lending practices, identity verification, financial networks, and consumer culture. Although the imprinting process has since been remediated in the form of magnetic strips on the back of credit cards, and the card itself can now serve as both an instrument of credit and debit, the contemporary predominance of electronic financial transactions might best be understood as the legacy of the credit card imprinter’s innovative reduction of abstract financial mechanisms down to one easily produced and modified document in the 1960’s.

In attempting to maximize speed, efficiency and security, the ideal form of transaction seems to be one that overlaid multiple forms of verification and authentication on a single sight, and the credit card imprinter presents itself as the most efficient and cost effective solution to this problem.

Description of Artifact

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Addressograph Bartizan Model 4850 manual imprinter
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Patent illustration for Addressograph Roller Platen Printing Machine, May 27, 1952

The imprinter itself consists of a flat bed of metal or plastic with bezels that holds a credit card in place and prevents lateral movement. On the same surface, a custom plate displaying the merchant’s name, address and telephone number is screwed into place so that it’s own raised letters sit level with the characters on the surface of the card. The placement of both the card and the merchant plate, along with bezels on the edges of the flat bed ensure that the sales slip placed on top remains precisely aligned with the raised characters beneath. Using either carbon paper or NCR (No Carbon Required) paper the slip is designed so that additional copies are simultaneously inscribed and distributed to the three parties involved in the transaction: customer, merchant and card issuer. Inscription is achieved with one lateral swipe of a roller mounted on top of the artifact with spring mounted wheels to ensure consistent distribution of pressure to each character pressed onto the slip. Whereas the earliest models are plagued by the tendency of operators to swipe back and forth– often resulting in double inscriptions due to minute shifts of the slip – later models (US Patent no. 3,838,640, October 1, 1974) are modified to ensure that pressure could only be applied in one direction.

When used successfully, the imprinter produces sales slips that record the name of the credit card owner, the unique account number of the specific credit card, the name of the merchant, the merchant’'s address, and the merchant’s phone number -– if inscribed on the plate. Most cards issued after 1983 also include raised expiration dates which are also inscribed by imprinter (Us Patent no. 4,562,342, filed September 15, 1983). The slip records each item in specific areas on the form, leaving the actual quantity of the transaction, sales tax, and total, the only information inscribed by the salesperson by hand. The document is then given to the owner of the credit card, who signs the document entering into a legal contract with the credit card company and the merchant as defined in the credit card terms of service. It is then left to the salesperson to ensure the signature on the card itself matches the signature on the slip, and, when indicated, that the card has not past its expiration date.

The three identical documents produced in this momentary exchange constitute a streamlined reduction of financial processes often dependent upon a sequence of exchanged documents, producing in one motion the functional equivalents of a check, a bond, and loan. The distinction between them is, however, wholly dependent on the party who possesses them: the merchant copy functions as a check from the card owner to be honored by the credit card company, the credit card company's copy function as a bond backed by the credit card owner’s debt, and the credit owner's copy is a loan to be paid according to a prearranged schedule and legal agreement governing the use of the card.

The transaction ritual necessitated by the imprinter assembles multiple forms of inscription, authentication and signification at a single site producing a legal financial document that communicates a different meaning for each of the three parties it binds together. The credit card number itself, is on one level, simply a unique number to the individual to whom the card is issued, yet embedded in the number is a code which reveals the credit network, the card’s issuing bank, the issuing branch, and the number assigned by that branch to the individual. Although such a code can be read by those with the proper reference materials File:Card identification features.pdf it is worth noting that the unique registered signifier is encoded using a standard OCR typeface, which is meant to be read by a computer.

Money Form

To meaningfully situate credit documents within a larger history of financial objects, we must return, unsurprisingly, to the emergence of what Marx calls the universal equivalent. Marx describes a long chain of proximate placeholders of value, of which the money form is but a more alienated sort. Marx suggests that the use of gold as an overriding unit of value "is a purely ideal act [in that] we may use purely imaginary or ideal gold to perform this operation" (Capital Volume 1, 190). Assigning a commodity a value specified in units of gold, Marx argues, does not turn the commodity into gold. The gold to which the price refers is entirely imaginary. "In its function as a measure of value, money therefore serves only in an imaginary and ideal capacity" (Capital Volume 1, 190). Whereas Marx would like to highlight the way in which the commodity form, represented in terms of gold as a universal equivalent, occludes the labor embodied in the commodity, we might simply focus on the way in which his description teases out the representational system at work in the money form. Not only is the selection of gold as the universal equivalent arbitrary, but the rendering of value in terms of gold is always representational (i.e., imaginary). Commodities can be exchanged for money (C-M), and back again (M-C)—"Circulation sweats money from every pore" (Capital Volume 1, 208)—but money is still only an alienated embodiment of labor of a higher representational order. Money must refer back to gold and the imaginary price expressed in gold back to labor.

Although the commodity would have us overlook its social history by expressing its value in money, the money form does not necessarily hide its relationship to gold. In fact, early forms of currency were bank-issued promissory notes that explicitly referenced their substitutability for gold. In Colonial and Prerevolutionary America, for example, individual banks would circulate their own forms of redeemable paper money. Notes stood-in for gold held at the bank in a specific customer’s account. Although currency was not an embodiment of gold, it represented specific amounts of gold in another location. Of course, if a currency maintained the confidence of its users, money could permanently defer its redemption and conversion back into gold. Currency, at this time, was still highly localized: notes issued by a bank in New York, for instance, may not have been accepted (at face value) in Providence. This was later paralleled in the early credit system which was often institution specific (e.g., credit documents issued by and for exclusive use at restaurants, gas stations, airlines, or department stores). At the outset, therefore, paper money assumed the form of a contract: a legally binding agreement drawn up by a third party (the bank) between two parties (the customer and the merchant). It is for this reason that we find hand-written signatures on early paper money, and why printed signatures persist on most contemporary currency. The bank issuer individually guaranteed each note and assumed the burden of authentication as an institutional intermediary. This allowed customers and merchants to avoid the burdensome and risky task of transporting gold on one’s person. Because early notes had no intrinsic value, the physical survival of a note—whether it was lost or destroyed—had no bearing on the money held in your account as gold. This remained the case, theoretically, until the Bretton Woods Agreements.

As the printing of currency was increasingly centralized and finally became the monopoly of the state, banks likewise developed new methods of mediated payment. Checks would revive the original contractual formula of early notes, but allow its customers the means to generate legal agreements on the fly. Rather than print notes of pre-specified value, the bank now instead offered pre-manufactured contractual templates whose final terms could be drawn up at the site of exchange. The check marked the beginning of a means of payment that required the individual and hand-written specification of parties to an exchange. Although there was no way for a merchant to verify whether a customer did indeed have the specified amount of money in his or her bank account, the general principles of fungibility and liquidity still obtained. Check were redeemable for actually existing money. Banks may have threaten customers with punitive fines for overdraft, but the possibility of overdraft also heralded the beginning of consumer credit. Customers could spend money they did not have.

The issuance and use of individual credit documents, in this context, may not appear so novel. As yet another kind of promissory note, they allowed customers to enter into simultaneous agreement with a merchant and credit issuer. Initially, as will be discussed, the merchant and credit issuer were often one and the same. But credit documents were not bound by the rules of currency and checks. Credit agreements literally introduced new money into the economy. Credit-based transactions would generate legal agreements of a qualitatively different sort: contracts that referred to money not yet in hand. Although the merchant would promptly receive the promised sum, and the customer would eventually repay the assumed debt, these two processes were now fundamentally decoupled from one another. Credit documents initiated near-immediate payment by the credit issuer to the merchant and a purposefully deferral of re-payment by the customer to the credit issuer. A credit transaction generates entirely new value at the same time that it extends the economy along a future horizon of deferred payment. But credit transactions are also a return to a mode of exchange based on promissory notes. Although the money to which these notes refer are no longer pegged to any material artifact of value (e.g., gold), the credit receipt represents a contractual agreement much like that of early currency. This is evident at the material level: the raised letters of a credit card operate on the same principle as the currency printing plate. The imprinter is a modular printing plate of promissory notes.

The history of money is the history of overcoming fraud.

Credit Coins, Credit Cards, and Credit Plates

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Patent illustration for Farrington Stamping Device, March 10, 1931
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The Bullocks department store of Los Angeles introduces and explains the Charga-Plate (Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1936)

Before the rise of credit card companies, local stores simply extended credit to their regular customers, as remains customary practice in bars, for instance. Credit was a two-party arrangement rather than a three-party arrangement involving a business that issues credit without also selling goods. Such an issuance of credit operated on the strict principle of local knowledge. One could manage risk and safely extend credit in this context because most financial transactions occurred within a relatively closed social network. Routine interactions would allow merchants to make historically-informed decisions about someone's credit worthiness. But, as Ingrid Jeacle and Eamonn J. Walsh note: "The nature of this local knowledge was such that it was embodied in individuals rather than institutions. For this reason, larger retailers were unable to participate in the credit nexus and avoided the problem by limiting the credit facilities offered to customers" (739). Anonymous customers presented a huge challenge to the functioning of credit systems in early department stores. Cash was the preferred and often only acceptable means of payment. To overcome the problem of consumer credit, which had not yet been addressed by the established banking institutions, merchants began to establish in-store banking departments. Customers were encouraged to open and maintain accounts on the premises, upon which they could draw by way of credit slips at the checkout counter.

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Akron Charga-Plate

This was soon replaced by the charge coin and then again by the charge card. According to Jeacle and Walsh, “The charge coin was a small and easily portable numbered metal coin that the customer presented when making a credit purchase. The number of the coin was also used as the customer’s account number in the store’s debtors ledger. These coins […] enabled the efficient management of a far greater number of customers and helped reduce the possibility of individuals fraudulently charging goods to a customer’s account” (748). The coin functioned as both an accounting and authentication device. The only information on the credit coin was the name of the store and a number representing the customer. The customer’s name and address still had to be written out by hand and was prone to human error. This often lead to discrepancies between the information maintained in the customer’s credit file and the information provided at the point of service. The Farrington Manufacturing Company of Massachusetts developed the Charga-Plate to solve precisely this problem. A small metal plate was embossed with the customer’s name, address, and account number. A customer would present this plate at the point of purchase; the merchant would then fix the plate into a manual hand-held press that would then imprint the customer’s information onto a sales bill. The original press required downward pressure, unlike the roller platen press that would later become more common.

The Charga-Plate was wildly successful. The first store to implement the system in 1928 issued 93,000 plates within the first month. This success had much to do with its standardizing effect at both the front (sales counter) and back (accounting) end.

Charga-Matic and Optical Character Recognition

Machine and human readable typeface—OCR

The Universal Credit Card

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Diner's Club Advertisement (The New York Times, April 5, 1953)

The rise of the universal credit card marked the beginning of a consolidation of economic exchange and governmentality into a single piece of material. Efforts to make this consolidation as efficient as possible characterize the history of the credit card. The drive for efficiency has now become almost completely technological, a matter of developing technology that can collapse the time between a sale and the verification of the card. This is a temporal as well as a physical compression of spending and accounting of spenders into one efficient medium for making information accessible as quickly as possible.

Along with these efforts at compression or consolidation is an expanded range of movement for card holders, who can now use their cards anywhere. The universal card standardizes techniques of accounting and ties identification to a code, a series of numbers, instead of a physical body or a known personality. The power of local boundaries to bound people was undermined by credit cards. This can be understood as a kind of freedom, but it came at a cost. The recording of a person's economic activity followed the person across geographical boundaries and from store to store, taking as its access point the card itself. This was possible in part because of increased efficiency in information's coding, transmission to a central node, and decoding.

The Birth of the Universal Card

The history of the rise of the universal credit card sheds light on the beginning of this process of compressing the moment of economic exchange with the moments of identification and validation, while also encouraging consumers to expand the geographical range of their spending. Before the dominant problematic became one of technology, there were other problematics including the struggle over control of credit between new credit card companies and old industries such as gas companies, restaurants, and department stores.

In order for credit cards to be accepted by both consumers and merchants, they had to offer a clear benefit to both. They offered to make the process of buying easier, which would appeal to merchants and consumers. However, they were taking a percentage out of every credit card purchase from the merchant, and also undermining customer loyalty. In order to be worthwhile for merchants, the credit card company needed to take over the governmental functions previously performed by credit-issuing merchants, such as verifying accounts, tracking down debtors and demanding payment, and calculating a consumer's spending history, and by taking on the burden of controlling debtors, the credit card company also had to guarantee that the merchant would be paid regardless of the credit-standing of the consumer. Despite this function, many merchants resisted anyway, which suggests that the governmental function associated with issuing credit is an economic privilege, despite its risks.

The universal card was still relatively new in 1960, when Donald H. Maffly and Alex McDonald published an article in the California Law Review entitled, "The Tripartite Credit Card Transaction: A Legal Infant." This article analyzes the switch from credit as a two-party arrangement between merchant and consumer, to a three-party arrangement including the credit card company. Maffly and McDonald focus on the resistance of stores and industries to the invasion of credit card companies.

Maffly and McDonald view the gas station "courtesy card" as a predecessor to the universal credit card. In the 1920s large gas companies started issuing courtesy cards that you could use to charge gas at any of the company's retail outlets. Independent dealers started accepting cards from larger companies as a way to share customers. According to Maffly and McDonald, oil companies were beginning to make deals with companies in different regions to accept each other's cards as early as the 1920s. This can be seen as a predecessor to the universal card because one could use it at a variety of different companies across a geographical span. However, all of the participating companies were in the same industry, so the card could only be used for gas and not for other commodities. In contrast, the universal credit card crosses industrial boundaries (Maffly and McDonald 1960, 460-61).

The first credit-issuing agency that did not also sell goods was the Diners Club of New York, started in 1950. Unlike the courtesy cards shared by different gas companies in the oil industry, the Diners Club was not merely a collection of participating restaurants: it was a separate credit agency. As Maffly and McDonald put it, the Diners Club "makes it possible for card-holding members to purchase goods and services at an increasing number and variety of retail outlets without having to enter into a direct credit relationship with any of them" (Maffly and McDonald 1960, 461). This is the function that credit card companies have served ever since. They set up a credit relationship with both the consumer and the merchant, so that the store does not have to worry about the shopper's credit; the credit card agency will pay the store no matter what.

The Diners Club card, also known as a T&E (Travel & Entertainment) card was successful enough to expand to other cities and industries, specifically hotels and retail stores. History has shown that it is nearly impossible for a credit card to succeed if it is only for local use. The Diners Club may have thrived in New York because of the density of the restaurant industry and the population. Its quick expansion to other cities allowed it to survive. Other companies, inspired by the success of the Diners Club, soon found that charge cards usually fail. As department stores were spreading to the suburbs, locals banks attempted to promote charge cards for use at independent stores that could not afford to accept the larger credit cards. But the failure of these local attempts demonstrates the financial power it took to make a charge card succeed: a large number of consumers and a large number of merchants had to sign up for the card at the same time for it to be worthwhile for either. (Evans, 62)

The Diner's Club had no serious competition until 1958, when American Express Company initiated a world-wide credit card system. This was followed by Hilton credit corporation six months later. These three credit card companies competed fiercely to get as many cards as possible into circulation while simultaneously signing up as many businesses as possible to accept the card. Bank of America, Carte Blanche, and Chase Manhattan Bank soon joined the competition, and the credit card industry was born (Maffly, 461, Evans, 63).

Industry Resistance and Hacking

Once the universal card became popular, it became difficult for businesses to refuse major credit cards without fear of losing customers. However, before this tipping point was reached, the restaurant, airline, retail clothing, and gas industries resisted the universal card. They preferred to maintain power over credit by limiting customers to their own company or industry cards, or finding other means of avoiding the credit card companies.

Maffly and McDonald discuss what they call a "revolt by a specific portion of the restaurant industry" against credit card companies from 1958-59. The restaurant industry objected to the size of the charge for each credit purchase, and the length of time they had to wait before being paid. The creativity of the restaurant industry's response is fascinating:

"Various means have been devised by restaurant owners to avoid these disadvantages: e.g., withdrawing from credit card plans; using credit cards as a credit reference and billing customers directly; charging card holders a price higher than cash customers, equal to the amount of the fee charged by the issuer; and organizing their own cooperative credit card plans with a central billing system" (maffly, 462).

Their method of using credit cards as a credit reference and billing customers directly can be seen as a hacking of the medium. Their boycott impelled the Hilton card company to "buy" the restaurant industry's acceptance by offering to lower the charge and expediting payment. The oil company response was to consider issuing their own card: "The oil companies that oppose the use of all-purpose credit cards argue that they do not increase the total demand for gasoline products, and that they cut into profits and destroy brand loyalty" (Maffly, 461). They were not sold by the universal credit card's promise to increase demand, perhaps because gas was a necessity, not a luxury, for all car owners.

Similar to the gas companies, "As a group, the major scheduled airlines have strenuously resisted the attempt of all-purpose card companies to subvert the airlines' own credit card system" (maffly, 462).

The largest department stores in the retail business held out the longest. Most larger retailers refused to accept bank credit cards until the 1970s. The Visa-J.C. Penny accord of 1979 was the first time bank credit cards were accepted by one of the Big Three department stores-- by that point Sears and Montgomery Ward were still resisting. According to David Evans and Richard Schmalensee's book, Paying With Plastic, "Retailers' lack of cooperation was enough to force some plans out of business." (Evans and Schmalensee, 81).

This resistance suggests that the benefits of credit cards were not immediately apparent to big businesses. Maffly writes, "The cases of the oil industry, the airlines, and the restaurant owners suggest that the credit card companies are able to overcome a particular industry's opposition to the costs by negotiating with members of the industry on an individual basis. Once the card companies have obtained a foothold, competitive pressures force many former dissidents to join." (Maffly, 462) Very quickly, there was no choice but to give the credit card companies complete power over credit.

Everyday Consumers

Maffly writes about the credit card companies attempts to expand their consumer base from businessmen to the "average" family (Maffly, 462). Much like its experience with industries, credit card companies found that the card did not sell itself. Their method for enlisting consumers was to find some way to get the card to the consumer, at which point they assumed the consumer would start using it. Eventually, credit cards became a means of access to things that would be impossible without them, for example, ordering things online; at this point it is just a matter of which credit card to get, and not whether or not to have one.

In an early attempt to sign people up for its credit cards, Bank of America joined together with San Joaquin Valley county medical organizations to devise a health insurance plan: "Payments on premiums are made monthly, the bank being responsible for billings and collections. Persons cannot enter the health insurance plan without holding a credit card issued by the bank. Since billings are made by mail, it would seem the credit card serves no function in the operation of the health plan. Most likely, the issuance of cards was intended by the bank to encourage members of the health plan to utilize the cards for retail purchases at stores which are members of the bank's credit card plan" (maffly, 462). This is an example of a governmental action built into an economic exchange. By telling people they cannot have access to one service (health insurance) unless they purchase another (the credit card), a subtle control is put on the buyer's freedom.

The ad slogan of the initial BankAmericard was, "Think of it as Money" ((From Hoover's Company Records - In-depth Records;, VISA INC. Copyright 2008 Hoover's Inc., All Rights Reserved. P.4)

Slips of Paper

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Dunfee's 1918 "Combined Check and Order Blank" - One sheet of paper performs two transactions. (US Patent No. 1,284,264)

In a November 12, 1918 patent Hod C. Dunfee introduced a blank slip that could function as both a check and an order form when backed by a given merchant. Although the form was initially intended to bypass the need for two separate documents, and to encourage loyalty on the part of a consumer issued the slips, the patent introduced the distinct possibility that a series of transactions could be simplified with the proper document. As Dunfee described: "A further object of my invention is to provide a combination check and order blank by the use of which in commercial transactions the manufacturer and customer (retailer or consumer) are brought into closer business relations, and whereby the usual middleman and salesman are eliminated thus effecting a great saving to the ultimate consumer." (Patent No. 1,282,264, lines 25-33). The patent drew upon a fundamental prerequisite for the functionality of financial and legal documents, mainly that they can serve their desired function as long as they are honored by the parties they impact. By simplifying the need for two separate transactions - that of ordering merchandise, and that of paying for it - Dunfee's patent allowed for a single surface to function as an assemblage of transactions. Within the year, the capacity for single pieces of printed matter to serve multiple functions were exploited further by Leander W. Wood's April 8, 1919 patent for a "Combination Acceptance, Order, and Plural Check Blank with Index-keys" which provided "a blank and index key whcih may be used to record an order for goods, the agreed price and the discount terms, and an agreement to pay, with an indication of the bank of the payer, and to provide as a part of such a blank a stub record." (US Patent No. 1,299,647, lines 28-33).

Technical Problems/Solutions of the Credit Card Imprinter

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Industry advertisement for Charga-Plate and Charga-Matic services (Wall Street Journal, January 28, 1954)

The credit card imprinter was designed to increase the efficiency of copying a credit card in a way that would not wear down the card's numbers. Its predecessor was a large stamping machine that could be pressed onto the card with a lever. When credit cards were pressed too many times, their numbers became less readable on the receipts, which are decoded by a machine.

The imprinter also seeks to make the process of printing quick and easy, without sacrificing information. The resulting receipt gives the credit card company all of the information it needs to make a payment to the store, and more importantly to charge the correct customer.

The Role of the Copy

The credit card imprinting apparatus speaks to questions about the role of the copy in capitalism, especially after the rise of credit and the detachment of money from the gold standard in 1973. While a copy is usually thought to occur after the fact, as a record of an event, the credit card imprinter exemplifies why this idea of copy as record is not adequate. In the use of the credit card imprinter, the act of making a copy is not merely an act of recording a transaction that has already happened; rather, it constitutes the transaction. The print itself (the one that is sent by the business to the credit card company) represents a monetary value, while the credit card is an identificatory plate used to make this print, and to tie it to a particular individual. It is the paper that functions as an official bill for money, while the card does not. In other words, the print that is made has the performative function of creating value.

Timothy Mitchell points out that it is necessary to question the distinction between the real world and its representations, arguing that "It is an opposition that is made in social practice, and the forms of this opposition that we take for granted are both comparatively recent and relatively unstable" (Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Technopolitics, Modernity, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2002, p.6). Mitchell argues that nineteenth century colonial practices took part in making modern representational thinking, suggesting that, "since the mechanisms that set up the separations precede, as we will see, the separation itself, the foundation is not as stable as it seems" (Mitchell, 6). This argument takes part in a discussion about the technical processes of economy that influence representational thought. Central to the technical processes surrounding the credit card are issues of copying, identity, centralization of control, delocalization of spending, and a calculus of data management that is immanent to capital and catalyzes its growth.

Discretion and Transparency

Portability of Device - Performance of transaction in front of customer

Combating Fraud

One of the major problems in the history of credit cards is the problem of verification. At the point of a credit card transaction, the user of the card needs to be identified as the owner of the card, and the card needs to be identified with a valid account that has not been canceled. If these two verifications can happen at the point of sale, then fraudulent use of cards can be prevented. Therefore, the problem of fraud is usually a problem of speed.

Fraud was a major problem in the early years of credit cards, in part because unsolicited cards were sent out in mass mailings as a marketing device. Despite its dangers, this technique seemed the only way to address the problem that companies faced when they introduced a credit card plan: to simultaneously sign up consumers and merchants. The card would only appeal to consumers if a variety of merchants accepted it, and it would only appeal to merchants if many consumers had it. This period of time in credit card history is characterized by a degree and quality of chaos foreign to us now:

"Merchants mailed in slips for nonexistent purchases. Cards were stolen from hones and mailboxes, as well as directly from the manufacturers.... A healthy black market in stolen cards developed, and soon there were indications that organized crime was involved. Even as the banks developed methods to combat existing fraud, criminals developed new scams, such as altering cards with an iron, or shaving off and rearranging the embossed letters and numbers" (Evans, 79).

Different security systems were developed over time in order to combat these problems. The historical development of the card and its processing needed to account for the two different moments of verification, the card user's ownership of the card, and the card's relationship to a valid account. The possibility of verifying these two identities is explained in the 1972 patent for a computerized credit card verification system. The writer of the patent points out problems of verification fraud that a centralized computer system could address:

"A very substantial amount of purchases made in this country are by credit card. However, as credit cards have gained popularity, there has been an increasing amount of monetary losses due to either unauthorized charges made on lost credit cards or charges made by persons whose credit card has been cancelled or revoked but not picked up. Losses also result from instances in which the credit of a customer is limited to an amount commensurate with his ability to pay, but the establishment accepting the credit card permits excessive charges due to lack of knowledge of recent charges or lack of knowledge of the limit imposed on a particular credit card holder." (U.S. Patent 3,671,717. June 20, 1972. Credit Card Verification System.)

The problem this patent seeks to address is the lag time between the point of sale and the verification of a card. Before the process of credit card payment became electronic, a credit card could not be verified until long after the sale. Store owners could refer to a long list of bad credit card numbers at the point of sale, but this was not efficient. In this patent Albert H. Bieser proposes a "card sensing device" that electronically reads the embossed characters on the card and sends the information over a telephone line to a central computer. The device's "feelers" are able to read Farrington 7B type font. According to Bieser, "Such fonts are most often used on credit cards." Credit card fonts were not yet standardized across the credit industry, but this font was apparently popular, perhaps because it was designed to be difficult to forge. The central computer is able to "check the number of card against a list of good or bad numbers." "If information on the amount of the sale is transmitted to the computer, the computer may also determine if the amount being charged is within the limits of the particular card holder. Billing information and card number can also be applied to a different computer, if desired for purposes of providing billing formation and automatically producing statements when desired."

Bieser repeatedly emphasizes that this does not have to be expensive, suggesting ways to cut telephone costs. This emphasis suggests that the technical capacity to electronically read cards and network credit card terminals to a central computer was already developed, and that the main issue was cost.

This innovation solves the problem of a temporal lag between a credit card purchase and the verification of the card. It thus prevents people from "hacking" the credit card.

Spacing between characters embossed on credit cards. Spacing within characters to make it possible to emboss. But also tight enough that you can't switch numbers. Can't turn 3 into 8. 2 and 5 don't look alike. Security font. Designed to be impossible to tamper with.

Carbon paper wasn't accepted in court bc of forgery from late 1800s to end of 19th century (From "Exciting History of Carbon Paper")

The Signature

From the outset, the signature assumes a strange and dual role in the credit card transaction. As Roy Harris notes, the location of the signature, in general, is key to understanding its semiological and legal significance: “The position of the signature marks the conclusion of the document (the assumption being that the signatory has written it, or at least read it, before signing” (173). The signature indicates a unique form of agreement. The individual, in so signing, acknowledges the substance and consequence of the document. But the signature is also a key mechanism in authenticating the parties to the transaction. The signature not only legally confirms the customer’s willingness to engage in such a contractual agreement, but likewise ties the signed agreement to the customer. Which is why a printed name is insufficient. As Harris again argues, “a name is not a signature. Names of all kinds can be appended to or included in a document without being eo ipso signatures” (164). The signature must be unique and perfectly replicatable. Although the signature is the purposefully non-mechanical, it must nonetheless remain consistent. According to Beatrice Fraenkel, “[t]he use of seals allows the production of impressions similar in every detail to their common matrix. In order to forge a seal, a false matrix must be made, The signatory is deemed to produce a signature as if he himself were a matrix capable of replicating a form” (Qtd. In Harris, 183). The signatory must him or herself act as a ‘graphic replicating device.’ The signature is a purposefully accurate reproduction of the same mark. The ability to compare a pre-existing signature on a credit card to the mark produced at the site of exchange makes the credit card “available for repeated acts of probative ratification” (Jane Caplan, 2001, 51). The signature allows the merchant to determine whether the card belongs to the customer.

Authenticating Transactions to Authentication as Transaction

Lagtime between invention of magnetic strip and universal use of it. Magnetic strip is about immediate verification. Can't be used until the business has a modem. Credit card co. needs to provide incentive for merchant to have immediate verification to deter fraud. Law that says if you accept fraudulent card it's your fault?

Exploitation of the Imprinting System

By 1982, exploitation of one of the weakest attributes of the system created by the imprinter was on the rise, and the need arose for new forms of verification that were less vulnerable to abuse at the point of sale. Although merchants were legally bound to inspect cards in order to ensure that they were not counterfeit, the imprinting system left absolutely no trace of whether such protocol had indeed been followed at the site of transaction. The imprinter was incapable of recognizing the difference between a card with valid authenticating apparatuses on its surface (such as the signature plate or identification of the issuing party), and a fake that simply possessed the proper embossed and raised characters to be imprinted. This weakness of the imprinting procedure created a climate wherein the collusion of merchants with fraudulent activity could go unmonitored, resulting in escalating losses for card issuers as the exploit became more widely practiced (“Bandits Wielding Plastic,” New York Times; May 22, 1983; p. F12).

Although verification procedures less vulnerable to such misuse had existed for decades, they all required a more sophisticated apparatus for reading and inscription, and had earlier been seen as an obstacle to the spread of credit networks. Yet as it became profitable for corrupt merchants to join credit networks in order to exploit them, the adoption of sophisticated verification technologies became more feasible. Mastercard began featuring holographic emblems on its cards that were difficult to forge, yet like the signature plate, were entirely dependent upon merchant adoption of verification protocols that left no traces of having occurred. Visa introduced the “Electron” card, which featured magnetic strip technology that could be “read” by terminals and automatic tellers at the sight of transaction – though the earliest forms of this system did not necessarily rely upon modems and networked access to card databases, and simply ensured that all credit card information was read from the strip, eliminating the loophole of human error that had come to be exploited. Smart Card International licensed a memory chip technology that could store card balance information and be adjusted accordingly at each transaction to ensure limits were not exceeded.

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Luhn's "Computer for Verifying Numbers"
Even though these efforts did help combat forgery, they did so primarily by eliminating room for intentional human error, and for the most part, simply remediated the imprinting system in a less legible format that required special machinery to decipher. The use of special machinery in the verification process was by no means a new phenomenon, and although the use of such equipment at the site of transaction was impossible to guarantee in earlier attempts, such processes had been built into the credit identification structure in the early 60’s. Hans P. Luhn developed a mathematical algorithm in the previous decade which utilized checksums to issue numbers according to distinct formulae. His invention of a verification computer (US Patent no. 2,950,058, issued August 23, 1960) allowed for any given number to be tested for compliance with the checksum algorithm. This helped curtail the use of arbitrary numbers in forgery, yet was only useful in as much as a forger could not obtain the algorithm.

As the decade came to a close and the distribution of shareware through Bulletin Board Systems found its way onto the internet, programs utilizing such checksums to validate serial numbers proliferated, and widespread distribution of generator programs which could provide numbers in accordance with Luhn’s algorithm became a serious threat to card issuers. Like “blue boxes” in the 1960’s, programs like “Credit Master” democratized the ability to exploit financial infrastructure, or as they explained on their instruction page: “Anytime you want to check a card, reconstruct one," or "make new ones out of the blue or even make new cards out of an old one, the program will do the work . . . It's almost too good to be real. But alas, it is real.” (“On Line and Inside Credit Card Security,” New York Times, March 19, 1995). There countless examples of such counterfeit software, but one of its more peculiar manifestations came in the form of a moded client for America Online in 1994 called AOHell. The program, written by a hacker known as “Da Chronic” gave users functionality well beyond that of administrator access to the popular online service, and was envisioned as a means of disrupting the service which engaged in selective censorship and account terminations. Yet beyond the mail bomb and phishing tools embedded in the program was a fake account generator which would generate fake credit card numbers that would enable service until AOL billed the account and discovered the number to be fake. Such a state of affairs is especially significant in considering the decline of the imprinting system, because it was wholly parasitic upon the delay between a given transaction and the card issuer’s notification that the transaction had taken place. AOHell presents a particularly strange instance where an internet provider was not accessing databases online at the moment of transaction to ensure that card numbers were, in fact, valid: whereas other merchants had avoided such forms of verification in the past due to associated expenses, the internet provider inherently possessed such resources and failed to make use of them.

Legacies of the Imprinting System

Although credit card companies might have just as easily developed new algorithms in an attempt to stay a step ahead of new innovations in the practice of forgery, such attempts would have merely treated symptoms rather than the problem introduced decades earlier – namely the need to perform verification at a distance from the ultimate site of authentication. Interestingly, as imprinters became scarce, the absence of one item that had been documented on imprinted slips for at least the past decade, the expiration date, reasserted itself as an independent authenticator unique to each account. With no predetermined correlation between the two variables, fraud could only be accomplished through specific matches that would have to be obtained through means other than a checksum. In order to verify these non-correlating variables, documentation at the site of transaction gave way to direct electronic verification of card number, expiration date, confirmation that spending limit had not been succeeded, and eventually, in the following decade, the CCV security code. The removal of the delay between transaction and authentication ultimately reconfigured spending through the credit networks, transforming from a mode of inscription which was consistutive of the purchase as well as contractual agreement to another mode of transaction that is now purely a form of instantaneous authentication.

Sites of interest

The Museum of American Finance

The Museum of Money & Financial Institutions