The payments landscape and the way we pay for goods and services has changed dramatically throughout history. While we once bartered with foraged animals, the monetary mediums in play today are a far cry from cattle and other forms of livestock.
Early forms of payment took on physical forms that included cattle, metal, and paper. The emergence of information technology paved the way for electronic forms of payments. And in our digital age, we enjoy the convenience of rapid, electronic payments, such as debit and credit cards and mobile wallets that allow us the freedom to pay for goods and services anywhere, anytime. Finally, for a society living more and more online, the next generation of payments is naturally, the virtual kind. While cryptocurrencies are just emerging and finding its footing, adoption could be exponential, seeing Bitcoin as the default reserve currency in the next 5 years.
Let’s take a look at some milestones in global history that led to where payments are today – and where it’s going.
- 9000-6000 BC: Livestock
Animals like camels, sheep, and cows are used as barter.
- 3000 BC: Shekel
The shekel is used in Mesopotamia to measure a specific weight of barley and would later evolve into an equivalent to silver, bronze, and copper.
- 1200 BC: Shells
Found in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, cowrie shells are used in China.
- 1000-600 BC: Crude metal
Coins made from base metals are used in China.
- 700 BC: Precious metal coins
Gold and silver coins, stamped with various gods and emperors, are used in ancient Lydia (modern-day Turkey).
- 118 BC: Leather money
Considered the first documented type of banknote, one square foot pieces of white deerskin with colorful borders are used in China.
- 806: Paper currency
Due to a copper shortage, paper banknotes are created in China.
- 1535: The wampum
North American Indians use the wampum, a string of beads made from white clam shells. In 1637, the wampum would later be declared legal tender in the United States.
- 1659: Cheques
The first cheque appears in Britain.
- 1816: Gold
Gold is officially the standard of value in England; banknotes’ worth is now tied directly to gold.
- 1861: U.S. paper currency
Due to coin hoarding during the civil war, the US begins creating paper currency bills.
- 1891: Traveler’s cheques
American Express issues traveler’s cheques that allowed travelers to pay for items without using cash.
- 1913: Gold-backed U.S Dollar
The Federal Reserve System and subsequently gold-banked Federal Reserve notes are established.
- 1918: Electric money
The Federal Reserve moves currency via telegraph, and electric money is created.
- 1921: Charge cards
Department stores, hotel chains, and service stations start providing charge cards to customers so they wouldn’t have to travel back home to get money.
- 1946: First bank card
John Biggins, a New York banker, introduces the first bankcard: “Charg-it”.
- 1950: First credit cards
Diners Club releases the world’s first universal credit card; it was made of cardboard. Eight years later, American Express and Visa would follow suit.
- The 1970s: Magnetic stripe
The magnetic stripe is standardized, allowing transactions to be verified electronically.
- 1978: First debit card
The first debit card is issued by The First National Bank of Seattle to business executives with large savings accounts.
- 1979: First credit card terminal and eCommerce introduced
• Moving on from the manual imprint machines, Visa introduces the first credit card terminal.
• Michael Aldrich introduces the concept of “teleshopping” which would later become online shopping.
- 1983: RFID
The patent for RFID is granted to Charles Walton. RFID would later be used to allow drivers to electronically pay tolls on bridges and toll roads without stopping.
- 1994: EMV and first online purchase
• The EMV standard is created.
• The first online purchase is made.
- 1996: E-gold
The first form of virtual money is founded: e-gold.
- 1997: First mobile payments and first contactless payment
• Coco-Cola introduces the first mobile payment with several vending machines that can accept payments via text message.
• ExxonMobil creates Speedpass, the first contactless payment system, allowing consumers to wave the Speedpass to pay for gas at the pump.
- 2003: NFC
NFC becomes an approved ISO/IEC standard. NFC would pave the way for mobile wallets to proliferate.
- 2007: First mobile wallet
M-PESA creates the first mobile payments system, allowing users to transfer money on their phones.
- 2009: Bitcoin born
The first cryptocurrency, bitcoin, emerged.
- 2011: Mobile payments in Canada
Payfirma is the first to bring mobile payments to Canada with their mobile card reader.
- 2016: Friction-free payments
Companies, like Google and MasterCard, continue to explore technologies in pursuit of friction-free payments.