Historical Events  General
Credit cards

When were credit cards first described in detail?



People think of the origins of money being something like pebbles being used by cavemen, which is almost certainly untrue in any case. The idea of money evolving into something totally abstract, beyond mere entries in a bank account, is popularly associated with the rise of technology, computers and in particular the restructuring many economies were forced to undertake as part of their rebuilding process after the second world war. In particular, the Diners Club cars, launched in 1950, is popularly regarded as the world's first credit card.

It turns out that whilst the implementation of credit cards began at this time, the idea of how they would function was fully documented in great detail a lot earlier.

From the novel Looking Backward:

… a credit card issued him with which he procures at the public storehouses, found in every community, whatever he desires whenever he desires it. This arrangement, you will see, totally obviates the necessity for business transactions of any sort between individuals and consumers.

-- Edward Bellamy, 1888

Bellamy coined the term "Credit Card"

You might have thought Bellamy would be a high profile banker deeply familiar with the intricacies of modern finance. He was not. In fact, he was a college dropout who became a science fiction author. The idea of a universal system recording transactions without cash came about as part of his natural extrapolation abilities he'd sharpened during the course of this work.In the novel which describes credit cards, a character falls asleep in the year 1887 and wakes up in the year 2000. He then finds credit cards are in widespread use - an uncannily accurate prediction if ever there was one!

Credit in 1888

The idea of credit itself was obviously well known in Bellamy's day, from friends lending each other money, through to banks and right up to the local store running up a "tab" for trusted customers. Bellamy described a system which today would be more described as a debit card, because each transaction is paid off immediately by a trusted third party, in his case the US Government drawing from the GDP.

He specifically said they were global, in that goods and services could be exchanged for whatever currency the person using it requires at the time. Foreign exchanges were virtually unheard of to the ordinary man in the street at the time. His vision was so accurate it would be nice to know if he left any lottery numbers lying around...