A magnetic stripe (“magstripe”) is essentially a length of recording tape that is bonded to the back of payment cards. The magnetic material, coded with individual account information, is later read by physical contact (“swiping”) on a terminal. Credit cards, driver licenses, security passes and even train tickets are all examples of magnetic stripe cards.
Some cards also feature RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) tags, global positioning chips and/or other microchips. These items do not replace the stripe and do not store the same data, but are added by some card issuers for additional functionality, such as access to secure areas.
Various international standards – ISO 7810 through 7813, and ISO 4909 – control not only a magnetic stripe card’s dimensions, but its flexibility, the precise placement of the magstripe, the magnetic material’s characteristics and so forth. These same international standards also specify the particular ranges of payment card number ranges to the various card issuing institutions.
The stripe is born
IBM developed the process for bonding the magnetic stripe while working with the U.S. government on a security system. In the 1950s, magnetic tape was the primary recording (data storage) medium, and an IBM engineer by the name of Forrest Parry had the idea of securing a piece of it to a plastic card. The story goes that he became frustrated at his many failures, and took his work home one night, where his wife solved the problem by ironing a strip of tape to the plastic. Apparently, the iron provided just the right amount of heat to bond the two together.
However it came into being, it took a great deal of time and effort to make this first magstripe card acceptable to business – almost ten years. In a process initiated by IBM’s Advanced Systems Division in Los Gatos, California, a loose consortium of engineering and financial firms, with input from the government and international standards groups, set out to define the new product.
First they established standards for what data should be recorded in what format and with what codes. Then they tested the card in the field and considered the consumer and industry obstacles they needed to overcome. With this information, they could then develop and implement the manufacturing steps required for the mass production of the huge number of cards they anticipated would be needed (and they guessed low, too). Finally, they needed to make the card work with both current and future equipment.
Most cards’ magnetic stripes have a plastic-like film coating or film. The stripe’s location from the card’s edge and its precise dimensions are controlled by the international standards, which also specify the recording density and use of its three tracks. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) created the standards for track 1, the American Banking Association (ABA) devised track 2′s and the thrift/savings industry specified the uses of track 3.
Magstripe cards that adhere to these specifications are usable by the vast majority of point-of-sale (POS) terminals. Tens (if not hundreds) of millions of ATM cards, bank cards, credit and debit cards with the VISA and MasterCard logos, gift cards, loyalty cards, driver’s licenses, telephone calling cards, membership cards and electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards (welfare, food stamps) are used worldwide every day. They provide consistent and dependable service because of universal adoption of the standards and the high-technology features that provide ease of use and security at the same time.