RFID – Some Of The Story Behind The Story

Technology is often taught in college classrooms as if the bits and bytes or theorems existed in some abstract vacuum, totally untouched, and unsullied by the taint of mankind. Yet every technological advance has a story to tell, a romance, or even an adventure. RFID, as cold as those four letters may sound by themselves, is no exception, as Howard Gordon’s email reminded us. 

Howard, the founder and CEO of Surveyor Corporation based in San Luis Obispo, California (one of our favorite places on this particular planet), was directly involved in the development and testing of the first RFID chips in the late 1970’s.

After reading our earlier post about using RFID in robots, he wrote:

“Just caught your article about RFID, and while it's actually not something I had thought about for a while, it brought back some memories.”

“Back in 1978-79, I worked on one of the first commercial implementations of RFID for a company called Identronix, which was later purchased by Allen Bradley.  The intent of the company was to commercialize some technology originally developed at Los Alamos National Labs, and the first application was development of a transponder which was implanted in cattle.” 

“The transponder was passive, extracting energy from a microwave transmission to power an IC (a gate array by Exar) which back-scatter modulated its antenna. The frequency at which the ID number was modulated was a function of the temperature of the transponder, though it turned out that the temperature measure wasn't effective, as the transponder had to be implanted pretty close to the surface in order for the microwave signal to penetrate in adequate strength, but the subcutaneous temperature was more directly affected  by sunlight warming than by core body temperature.” 

“Here's a link to an article about the early days -“


“My college classmate, Eric Redemann, developed that first RFID chip along with the microwave transceiver electronics, and I developed the software that controlled the transceiver and decoded the transponder signal.  I may have finally tossed it, but I used to have the first prototype Exar chip we got to work, though I didn't get to keep any of the actual transponders, which were quite large (maybe 1" x 4"). I wonder if Eric kept any...”

Within half an hour, Howard wrote back and attached this great photo-

  Photo: First working RFID chip prototype
  Courtesy of
Howard Gordon, Surveyor Corporation

“It's a bit worse for wear, but I am reasonably certain this is the first working prototype of an RFID chip.  The lid was held in place by masking tape, as the chip itself was sensitive to light.  I wish I had one of the completed transponders, but they were really rare - as soon as we had a working one, it would get implanted in a cow.“

Following the link that Howard provided above, and branching from link to link, and website to website, we were amazed to find the RFID story has strong connections to things like the British during WWII wanting to be able to recognize friendly aircraft returning from a bombing mission to make sure they didn’t shoot down their own planes; the modern aircraft transponder systems; tracking of nuclear materials at facilities like Los Alamos during the 70’s; the care, feeding, and breeding of dairy cows triggered in part by a connection to a tanning business problem; railroad problems; and much, much more.

Related links:

Early RFID History - via the Eagle’s Nest

Shrouds of Time - The History of RFID - via the AIM website (pdf file)

Surveyor Corporation - Howard Gordon’s company specializing in visual connectivity products, platforms, and solutions


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