The Long Life and Imminent Death of the Mag-Stripe Card

The Mag-Stripe Era Ends

Jerome Svigals, Spectrum cover 1974
Left: Jerome Svigals; Right: IEEE Spectrum

In 1974, IEEE Spectrum published a cover story announcing the birth of the magnetic-stripe card, one of the most successful inventions ever. In this issue, some 38 years later, we’ve got an article that announces the impending death of the mag-stripe card.

Astoundingly, the same man, Jerome Svigals, has a byline in both articles. We’re pretty sure this is the first time that the same person has announced, in the same magazine, the beginning and the end of such a momentous technology.

In the 1960s, Svigals was working as a systems manager for IBM in Asia. Those were the days when people often spent an entire career at one company and when IBMers joked that IBM stood for “I’ve been moved.” So Svigals’s experience in the late 1960s wasn’t all that uncommon: His managers brought him back to the United States and then set about looking for a stateside job that fit his skills.

Svigals had worked with banking customers in the past, and IBM was kicking off a project that involved the banking industry. The gist of it was figuring out a way for customers to automatically and reliably identify themselves to machines. So they made Svigals development director for electronic banking, and his first assignment was to work with a senior scientist to consider possible technologies for that identification challenge. The two quickly settled on the magnetic stripe.

In 1974, IBM was ready to make some noise about the technology. Svigals, an avid Spectrum reader, urged IBM’s PR people to contact us, and they did. We agreed to publish an article by Svigals and a coworker, Herman A. Ziegler. It was Svigals’s first attempt to write something for a wide readership, and he still keeps a treasured copy of the issue in his files.

It was the start of something. He liked writing so much he went on to write a book on smart cards in 1985. Since then Svigals, now in his mid-80s, has published 27 books and about a hundred articles. “The positive forecasting in that article was absolutely on target,” Svigals says today. “But we didn’t expect mag-stripe cards to be used for things like hotel keys. We weren’t that smart.”