In its aspiring to the high-tech elite, Huntington Bancshares is merely following an old Columbus tradition.

Long before there was a Silicon Valley, Ohio's capital city was building a reputation for technological leadership. Huntington is just another of the local businesses and institutions willing to try new things and tolerate failures.

It happens every day at Battelle Memorial Institute, the local hub of R&D. The nonprofit research institute was founded in Columbus in 1929 and became a global force in science and technology after its development in the 1940s of xerography - and the windfall that came from it.

Nearby is Ohio State University, enrollment 50,000, making Columbus one of the biggest college towns. But with a population of 700,000, and 1.5 million in the metropolitan area, the city is far more diverse than that.

"In a historical sense, with Battelle and all the other things, Columbus is special," said Mark A. Johnson, executive vice president of the fast- growing transaction software company Checkfree Corp. "If you look at PC penetration and other indicators, Columbus today looks a lot like other major metropolitan areas."

It is the base of Checkfree and of Compuserve Inc., of the Chemical Abstracts and the electronic-library consortium OCLC, of Nationwide Insurance and The Limited.

The city's Middle American location and demographics make it interesting for market testing. Warner Communications chose Columbus for its first test of interactive cable television, which provided clues to why early home banking experiments failed.

And it is home to "aggressive retail banks," Mr. Johnson said, led by Banc One, where he formerly worked, and some arrivals by acquisition, like KeyCorp and National City Corp.

When Huntington wanted to buy into a smart card system, it found a ready investment partner in Battelle, and a campus - Ohio Dominican College - eager to put the technology to use.

For all of Huntington's recent headline grabbing, Banc One people would argue it is a mere upstart. Indeed, there are parallels between William Randle's strategic advocacy role in the 1990s and that of Banc One's John Fisher from the 1960s to the 1980s, before he retired to Arizona.

Both were senior vice presidents strongly supported by their chairmen - in Mr. Fisher's case, John G. McCoy, the father of Banc One's current chief. Both were there to make waves. And both had a lot to do with building their banks' reputations in a way that brought a new breed of management talent as well as attention from Wall Street.

A gadfly within Columbus' No. 1 bank and a legend on the lecture circuit, Mr. Fisher pushed for credit cards and automated teller machine networks, home banking and biometric identification. He was often ahead of his time - 10 years in the case of banking by personal computer - but rarely off the mark. Today, Banc One is in hot pursuit of Internet opportunities, and Mr. Fisher certainly would approve.

He organized a consortium of major holding companies - First Chicago Corp. and First Interstate Bancorp among them - to build an on-line banking infrastructure. It folded, but a decade later an even bigger venture called Inet is getting off the ground.

"That's going to be the next major electronic delivery service for consumers," said John Russell, the Banc One spokesman who was a protege of Mr. Fisher's in the marketing department.

Mr. Fisher proposed "shared branches" - not too far off the concept of shared ATMs or back offices. He also talked about discouraging people from visiting branches on busy days - in keeping with the current trend of using pricing to steer customers to electronic systems.

He may have made the Columbus banking community safe for Bill Randle and for ideas that would not have survived in a more close-minded environment.

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