In the run up to the Festival of Mammon you have doubtless been giving your credit card a bit of a bash. You probably only turn it over to remind yourself of the CVV number but towards the top of the reverse of a credit card is a long metallic strip. Ever wondered who invented it?
Well step forward Ron Klein, the latest inductee of our Hall of Fame.
The Florida based inventor and Korean war veteran was working in 1964 as director of engineering for Ultronics Systems Corp. One of his clients had a bit of problem, how to determine credit cards belonging to people with a bad credit history from those with good credit. In those days stores were given each month a list of all card holders with poor credit history. At the point of sale the shop assistant would have to go through the ledgers to satisfy themselves that everything was hunky-dory. An inefficient and time-consuming process.
Klein exercised his grey cells on the subject and realised what was needed was some form of point-of-sale device. The machine he came up with in 1969, for which he obtained a patent, allowed the merchant to enter a credit card number into what was called a desk mountable interrogation unit which was connected to a central unit memory drum. The drum would check the credit card number against its store of poor credit records and if the customer got the all clear, it would produce a carbon copy sales ticket to complete the transaction. If the check failed, a light would go off and as an extra refinement the card would be locked from further use.
Whilst undoubtedly an improvement it was still time consuming and Klein realised that the key to enhancing the speed of the transaction was eliminating the human intervention. In trying to make the card smarter, as we would term it today, he was attracted to the idea of utilising the Hollerith code used in computer punch cards – remember them? – which used tiny holes punched in pre-defined positions on an eighty column grid. But the process of trimming the credit card to resemble a computer input card proved expensive.
Klein then turned to the medium that was all the rage at the time, reel-to-reel tape recorders – remember them? He recognised that the magnetic tape would give the card just enough processing power to eliminate the human intervention. The quirk of the credit card’s magnetic strip, its seemingly random sensitivity to the speed at which the card is swiped, is down to the tape’s origin and was deployed to activate what is known as stop-start synchronisation which tells the strip to read everything after the first synchronisation and reset everything after the last impulse.
Klein, as you would expect of an inductee to our Hall of Fame, didn’t patent his magnetic strip. Nonetheless it proved successful and was the basis for the enhancements which are used today.
Don’t feel too sorry for Klein. Although he didn’t make a mint out of the magnetic strip on credit cards, he made more than enough money from some of his other inventions. In particular, he designed a highly successful nutrition system which is used to raise chickens more efficiently.
Ron Klein, for inventing the magnetic strip on credit cards and not getting a bean for it, you are a worthy inductee to our Hall of Fame.
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