What were people of the past predicting today's credit card would look like?

Written by Geoff Williams
Posted On: June 13, 2012

It's always fun to make predictions about the future, but it's even more fun to look back and see what people of yesteryear were saying about today. Obviously, the creators of those Jetsons cartoons have a lot of answer for.

I got to thinking about this with the recent passing of Ray Bradbury, obviously one of America's writing greats and someone with an avid interest and healthy fear of the future. So in honor of Bradbury, I thought I'd take a look and see what predictions people were making back in the early days of paying with plastic. I'm not sure what I was hoping to find, but I was struck with just how accurate most financial experts were back in the 1960s and 1970s, when they were asked what the credit card of the future would look like.

So, hey, take a tour with me -- no refunds, sorry -- as I look back on predictions from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s about the credit card of the future. In no way is this a comprehensive tour, of course, on the predictions people were making, but it should be a nice glimpse of what people were saying along Memory Lane.

The 1950s

Not so wild prediction: Someday we'll pay for our gas at the pump.

Given that the first credit card, Diners Club, debuted in 1950, there weren't a lot of predictions being made throughout the 1950s about credit cards. People were still getting used to the idea of using plastic to pay for their purchases, let alone predict what would be coming up ahead. Still, the Tuscaloosa News reported on January 1, 1958, James A. Suffridge, president of the AFL-CIO retail clerks union, told Congress that it would soon be possible to drive into a gas station, have your tank filled automatically and have the cost billed to your electronic credit card by machine.

Granted, we're still waiting for a machine to automatically fill up our tank -- if Suffridge was envisioning a mechanical arm reaching out to the car and filling it up -- but Suffridge, of course, was right about the rest. Paying with a credit card right at the gas pump has been in existence for decades.

The 1960s

Not so wild prediction: Identity theft and a cashless society

The 1960s were another matter. People were becoming very comfortable with credit cards, so much so that predictions on identity theft -- which can often seem like a troubling new matter -- was forecast as a growing problem. As early as March 22, 1960, columnist Inez Robb said in Big Spring Daily Herald that "it was inevitable some bright counterfeiter… should realize that the future is not in money but in credit cards." Indeed, by 1968, the Independent Star News, the paper for Pasadena, California, reported that "credit card abusers and swindlers [had] bilked credit card companies and their users out of an estimated $20 to $25 million annually."

As for our cashless society, in 1966, as The Wall Street Journal reported, George W. Mitchell (1904-1997), an American economist and a member of the Federal Reserve, forecasted electronic banking, saying that the bank's computer would take over everything, making checkbooks obsolete.

Not quite there prediction: No more overdrawn bank balances.

But not everyone was prescient. In 1968, the psychic Jeron Criswell King, also known as the Amazing Criswell, who, according to Wikipedia, was known for his "wildly inaccurate predictions," wrote a column that appeared in the Bridgeport Post, of Bridgeport Connecticut, and likely many more papers. In a column talking about what would happen in 1968, he said, "I predict that credit cards will play a greater part in your life as never before, and you will never be overdrawn at the bank, as every account will have a system of credit and of balances."

Well, that first part of the sentence was certainly accurate enough, if not for 1968, it would be true enough as the years went on, but the last part -- as anyone who has ever paid $36 because they overdrew their bank account for a $4 cup of coffee -- was laughably off the mark.

The 1970s

Not only were credit cards becoming more ubiquitous around the world, electronic banking was really taking off. There was this amazing thing you could do -- actually as early as 1968, according to Herbert Edwards' 1976 book Credit Management Handbook -- where you could take out money from an automatic teller machine.

Not so wild prediction: Credit cards will pay for about everything. You'll be able to use your credit card at a doctor's office.

Not quite there prediction: We still aren't traveling by moving sidewalk.

An article from the Copley News Service that appeared in the Greeley Daily Tribune, in Greeley, Colorado on June 8, 1972, and probably many other papers, talked about the future of banking, and they really nailed it when the author noted: "In the future, credit cards will be used to transfer funds electronically. When a customer buys merchandise or pays for a service, a receipt will be given to him, but the transaction will be entered through a point-of-sale terminal over communication networks to a computer which will immediately charge his account and credit the merchant's account. These charges will be itemized for the customer in his monthly bank statement."

But it's more fun to look at a prediction made on October 10, 1970, by an ad for Park National Bank in the Newark Advocate in Newark, Ohio, in which they told potential customers, "You will use bank credit cards of the future to pay for nearly everything. One card will buy groceries and insurance, pay for your transportation and your home. Your income will be deposited to your credit card account the day it is earned."

On target stuff, but the copyrwiters in the ad for Park National Bank -- which still exists in Newark and seems to be thriving -- also said that within 20 years (which would be 1990), "moving sidewalks will be part of his transportation system. New construction systems will enable homes and buildings to be snapped together like toy construction sets. Communication systems of the day will feature life-size, three-dimensional TV. An added convenience will enable you to shop for advertised items by push-button."

Hmmm, it sounds like they may have predicted shopping online, and they were onto something with three- dimensional TV, although they were off by a couple decades. All in all, not bad. It makes the predictions people are making today -- about a cashless society and mobile banking via phone eventually supplanting brick and mortar branches -- seem awfully likely, although based on what people were saying back 30 and 40 years ago that, too, may take longer than anyone expects.

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