Mario Cardullo and the First RFID Patent
Mario W. Cardullo is an inventor who received the first patent for a passive, read-write Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag. He has been very active in technology and is the founder or principal in a number of technology companies since he graduated from NYU Polytech in 1957.
Cardullo tells the story of how he came up with the idea for RFID tags in 1969. He understood that Radio frequency identification (RFID) devices are based on basic concepts that have a long history. In 1969, Cardullo was the corporate planning officer to chairman of the Communications Satellite Corporation (Comsat). In the spring of 1969, he was seated next to an IBM engineer on a flight to Washington, from St. Paul. The engineer was implementing the CARTRAK optical system for the railroad industry. This system consisted of a reflective color bar code placed on the side of each railroad car. As the railroad car passes an optical base station, the station would transmit a beam of light. The optical bar code would reflect back a signal associated with the individual car so it could be identified.
There were a number of problems with the CARTRAK system. One was that the reflectors were easily damaged or vandalized. Dirt and mud would obscure the reflected surface, and there was no way to easily change the data the reflected bar code contained, which limited the usefulness of the system.
After the IBM engineer finished talking, he started to sketch in his notebook the idea for the RFID tag with a changeable memory. The original sketch showed a device with a transmitter, receiver, internal memory, and a power source.
In 1969, Cardullo began looking to start his own company. He investigated various concepts, and in mid-1969, he decided to launch a startup that would provide analysis of EKG’s using a mainframe computer program developed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
This analytical program required that the data be in a digital format so the company would have to design and build a digital medical acquisition terminal initially for EGKs and provide a service. During this period he was also lecturing every few months for the Industrial Management Center of Harvard University. At a lecture series given at Lake Placid, New York, he met Daniel Webster, a “cashed out” computer executive. Mr. Webster was excited about the concept Cardullo had for a new company that he named Communications Services Corporation (ComServ). He asked Cardullo to put together a management team and prepare a business plan.
On returning to the Washington, Cardullo met with several individuals he knew that could fill roles in marketing, finance, and engineering development. One of those individuals was Bill Parks, a brilliant electronics engineer. Putting his management team together they started work on a business plan. The principal product and service chosen was the EKG terminal and processing service. They also chose a series of electronic products that they thought would be follow-on products, since they did not want to be a “one-trick pony” company.
One of the products was the initial RFID tag Cardullo had sketched earlier that year. After much discussion, they decided to present to Mr. Webster an RFID tag based on a passive transponder with a changeable memory instead of an active battery operated device. They called this basic concept the “Encoder”.
They estimated that the new company would require a capitalization of $500,000 to start followed by additional capital of several million once the initial product and service was developed. When they presented the business plan to Mr. Webster he was extremely pleased. However, when they outlined the plan to develop a passive transponder with a changeable memory for use as a toll system he literally was ecstatic. Within a week of their meeting with Mr. Webster, checks averaging $50,000 from various investors started to arrive at Cardullo’s mailbox. Once the funds were available the management team and Cardullo left their positions and launched ComServ.
ComServ was the first company Cardullo had started. At that time, the Washington, DC area was not known for technology. Many of the companies in the area were dedicated to serving the US Government. From one of those companies Cardullo chose Bill Parks to be the vice president of engineering. He hired a small group of development engineers and technicians, which immediately started developing their two basic products and services: the EKG terminal and the RFID tag.
They contracted with Jacobi, Davidson, Lilling, and Siegel, of Washington as their patent attorneys. On May 21, 1970, the lawyers filed on their behalf the patent application for the RFID tag. The U.S. Patent Office issued the patent on January 23, 1973. The claims that the Patent Office approved included:
- A transponder comprising:
- Memory means for storing data.
- Means responsive to transmitted code signal for selective writing data into or reading data out from the memory, and for transmitting as an answerback signal data read-out from the memory.
- Means for internally generating operating power for the transponder from the transmitted code signal.
- A transponder where the transmitted code signal comprises a modulated carrier wave, this being the means for generating operating power comprising detecting means detecting the carrier wave and producing an operating power output signal and means responsive to the operating power output signal for powering the transponder, and the modulations of the carrier wave containing data and command information.
- A transponder as defined in the patent where the carrier wave is of radio frequency.
- A transponder as defined in the patent where the carrier wave is of light frequency.
- A transponder as defined in the patent where the carrier wave is of acoustic frequency.
- An interrogation system
The patent also presented various uses for the invention including:
- Detailed description of an automated automotive vehicle highway toll system similar to now used in most of the toll systems today.
- Provide a transponder which would be “physically small in size such that the device is highly portable, can be easily hidden, if desired, and can be carried and placed in or upon many different objects.”
During this period the technical staff started on the process of building the first RFID Tag. In 1970, the only non-volatile memory was ferrite cores that were used in mainframe computers. They needed a small number, sufficient for 16 bits. To achieve this, they purchased small ferrite donuts which served as memory cells that they then hand wound to obtain the non-volatile memory. They built a breadboard unit that they could demonstrate the system.
In 1971, they went to New York to meet with New York Port Authority representatives. They showed them the concept and how it could be used in an automated toll collection system. At that meeting the representative of the Port Authority amazingly told them “no one will ever mount those transponders on their car windows”. He also thought that the system would lead to invasion of privacy and could be “unconstitutional”. Within two years, the New York Port Authority then contracted to test a system similar to the issued patent (January 1973) but supplied by GE, Glenayre, Philips, and Westinghouse Air Brake!
While ComServ was building the RFID Tag with a changeable memory, others were also engaged in developing similar concepts including Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, Northwestern University, and the Microwave Institute Foundation in Sweden. However, ComServ was the first to receive a very generic patent.
By the end of 1973, Cardullo had left the ComServ after a disagreement with the original investors. Within a year the company closed. The development of the RFID concepts continued. Raytheon, RCA, and Fairchild had systems by 1973-1975 time period. The developments continued into the 1980’s. On January 23, 1990, the original patent expired without further patents by ComServ. The 1990’s was a period of significant growth of the RFID tag concept by the wide scale deployment of electronic toll collection systems. Today, the RFID Tag in its various configurations is becoming ubiquitous. Cardullo never benefited financially from his RFID invention, he did look with pride on its use today. Many of the applications he envisioned for it in the early 1970s are now being widely adopted in many new and exciting ways.
Mario Cardullo is currently working at the US Department of Commerce as the Counsellor for Technology and Entrepreneurship within the International Trade Administration. This main activity of this office is to bolster the development of entrepreneurial companies and capital formation worldwide.
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