March 02, 2011

The first published directory of bank routing numbers, a hundred-year-old guide to standardized bank identification, on Tuesday became the newest addition to the Museum of American Finance's collection.

The American Bankers Association, along with Accuity, the Official Routing Number Registrar marked the centennial of the ABA Key to Routing Numbers with a small ceremony at the museum at 48 Wall Street in New York. While much has changed in banking since the first routing number was assigned to Bank of New York, it remains one piece of technology that is still prominent today.

"When you think about all the things that have happened in the industry it's pretty remarkable that we're still using that original routing number," says Karen Peetz, vice chairman and CEO, Financial Markets and Treasury Services for BNY Mellon, a bank whose legacy can be traced to the Bank of New York, its founder, president Alexander Hamilton and the first routing number.

Before the routing number existed, banks used their own proprietary stamp and payments system. And conducting cross-institution transactions was somewhat more difficult.

"You may have not realized it, but 100 years ago, if you wanted to move assets, you had to move assets," says Hugh Jones, president and CEO of Accuity, "that is, physically take them from one place to another."

Today there are currently more than 24,000 active routing numbers in the United States, and the ABA Key to Routing Numbers is published semi-annually. The first edition joins a number of financial services artifacts in the Museum of American Finance, including the first IPO, bonds issued by George Washington, an early Bloomberg Terminal, the first wireless handheld trading device used by the New York Stock Exchange and even Bernie Madoff's custom Louisville Slugger baseball bat.

While much of what's on display at the museum shows the evolution of finance in the country, the routing number is one element that has steadily served the industry across the last century.

"Understand that one thing that hasn't changed is the routing number itself," Jones says. "Isn't that remarkable? I find it remarkable that the same system established 100 years ago is still in use today."

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