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Technological innovations brought automation to their back rooms.Two competing umbrella associations, which would eventually become Visa and Master Card, linked nationwide networks of merchants.The unlikely alliance would clear the way for Citibank to turn a money-losing credit card operation into a vastly profitable business. When Bank of America launched the nation's first general-purpose credit card in 1958, it simply dropped 60,000 of them in a mass mailing to residents in Fresno, California.The bank hoped to attract customers with a new type of "revolving" credit line, which could be used for purchases everywhere and paid off over time. Wriston recalled being asked by his boss at Citibank.

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And federal banking rules required that before banks could set up operations outside their home state, a formal invitation had to be issued by the legislature of the state they wanted to enter. "We'll put the facility in an inconvenient place for customers and we'll pay different interest rates," Mr. "Citibank actually drafted the legislation,'' he said. Delaware, which passed similar legislation the following year, would foil Mr. "By that time, we'd captured a lot, but we thought we were going to get them all.

"You are lending money at 12 percent and paying 20 percent," Mr. "You don't have to be Einstein to realize you're out of business.'' The bank employed 3,000 people in its credit card unit in Long Island at the time, a fact that Mr.

Wriston hoped would entice New York lawmakers to offer relief.

» A Snapshot of the Industry (Map) See how the 1978 Supreme Court decision Marquette Vs. affected the locations of the top 10 credit card issuers.

Today, all are located in states with very high interest caps or none at all.

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