Unraveling the Origins of RFID - Starring Mario Cardullo

Exploring the Origins, Challenges, and Future Implications of RFID Technology

Revolutionizing Connectivity

RFID technology, stemming from radar system development in World War II, took shape in the late 20th century. Innovators like Mario W. Cardullo played key roles. Initial concepts emerged in the 1940s, but significant progress in miniaturization and cost reduction occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, enabling practical applications. Commercialization happened in the 1990s, initially focusing on inventory management and access control.

Since then, RFID has become ubiquitous, used in supply chain management, asset tracking, and more. Today, it drives innovation, offering efficient solutions for asset, inventory, and information tracking.

Anja Van Bocxlaer, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Think WIOT Group, and Chuck Evanhoe, Chairman of the Board of Directors for AIM, interviewed American inventor and technology pioneer Dr. Mario Cardullo for insights into the history and beginnings of RFID technology, and its future potential.

Company story powered by: the Think WIOT Group and AIM

Unraveling the Origins of RFID

Exploring the Origins, Challenges, and Future Implications of RFID Technology.

Interview with Dr. Mario W. Cardullo
Dr. Mario W. Cardullo

"As an inventor, you just make things and you hope that they work, and that you get some return from them. You never really think that your inventions are going to change the world."
– Dr. Mario W. Cardullo

Dr. Mario W. Cardullo is an engineer, academic, and an entrepreneur. He is known as the American inventor who received the first patent for a passive read-write RFID transponder. The tech pioneer is now retired and will be turning 89 years old in May 2024.

It was an honor to have this interview with Dr. Mario W. Cardullo, together with Chuck Evanhoe. Dr. Cardullo brought the past back to life by describing the first stages of RFID development and his personal experiences. We are grateful to hear about his outstanding contributions, marking the beginning of a new technological era.

Rocket engines

One of the best rocket engines built by Dr. Mario W. Cardullo had 10,000 pounds of thrust.

Anja Van Bocxlaer, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Think WIOT Group

Anja Van Bocxlaer is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Think WIOT Group. The umbrella of the Think WIOT Group covers the e-magazines RFID im Blick and RFID & Wireless IoT Global, the Think WIOT Day livestreams, and the business platform Think Wireless IoT.

Mario W. Cardullo: Thank you, Anja. I did not go to university to learn about RFID. I went to university to build rocket engines. I graduated from high school in 1953. I had plans when I was 16 to be a rocket engineer, or an aerospace engineer. That’s why I picked mechanical and aeronautical engineering as my first degree. After that, I ended up working for the US government at the U.S. Naval Air Rocket Test Station in Dover, New Jersey. It later became part of the U.S. Army Picatinny Arsenal.

Mario W. Cardullo: I was working on something called a variable thrust liquid engine. It’s something the U.S. Navy used to super-propulse aircraft. When it got transferred to the U.S. Army Picatinny Arsenal, the last thing I designed was the aerospike nozzle for the Lance Missile, which was in operation for around 20 years.

Mario W. Cardullo: No, I ended up wanting to work for Belcom, a company that was set up at the request of President John F. Kennedy to the Bell Laboratory. I was asked to be one of two systems engineers. I was responsible for the main engines on Apollo 11. The best engine I’ve ever built was with about 10,000 pounds thrust.

It was actually at Bell Labs that I learned something interesting. I learned about systems engineering – how the people at Bell Labs who were developing systems, approach engineering. I also made it a habit to carry a little notebook with me at all times to write down ideas that I had.

Now you’d never think that this would lead to RFID, but it does.

The Road That Let To RFID

Chuck Evanhoe, Chairman of the Board of Directors for AIM

Chuck Evanhoe is the Chairman of the Board of Directors for AIM, the association for all automatic identification data capture technologies.

Evanhoe is also President of Aware Innovations, an ISV and systems integrator for item and asset management.

Mario W. Cardullo: With a BME and MME from the New York University Tandon School of Engineering (NYU), and a Ph.D. in IT from George Mason University, I chose to pursue a Master’s degree in Engineering Administration (MEA) at George Washington University. I chose this degree, to show that systems engineering could be used in anything.

To prove this, I took on a project at the Catholic Church. I wrote the first management study of the Catholic Church, comprising a 380-page thesis incorporating equations pertaining to the needs of priests, and the geographical distribution of churches in the archdiocese of Washington. With that, I successfully got my MEA degree.

Bear with me, because this does lead me down the path to RFID.

Since the Apollo, I had moved to the Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) where I was the corporate planner. I’m also the one who wrote the papers on mobile communications satellites for the Telecommunications Union. It was published in a journal in four languages. As you can see, I started getting involved with frequencies.

Mario W. Cardullo: I was asked to brief the Archbishop of St. Paul, Minnesota in July of 1969. I was flying off to St. Paul at the request of the archdiocese. On the way back, I was sitting next to a project engineer from IBM. He was working on a project called Car Track – a barcode system for railroad cars. He was telling me about all the problems he had with that.

Well, it struck me, that there was a simple solution. You do it wirelessly! So I took out my little notebook and sketched. It had a memory, a receiver, a transmitter, and you would use reflective energy.


When you first do something, it takes a while for the true results to surface. Take the barcode on a Wrigley’s pack of gum 50 years ago. It took another 10 years before it was in widespread use and started to be scanned just to have automation. RFID followed much of the same path.

This is similar to something called Friend or Foe. It was also quite like something that I read about, called the Wigand Patch. This was basically a chip that was capable of taking stuff out of stores. It’s a reflective device, very similar to Friend or Foe.

Mario W. Cardullo: When I was a little boy, my father had taken me to a museum in New York that had military exhibits, and that's when I first saw it. I was about eight or nine years old at the time. When the war ended, I was 10. It was just an idea that I ended up using. I didn't look in-depth at the technology when we first started. I worked with my electrical engineer who was a circuit designer and had a look at it, but we didn't really use it.

We knew that a reflective energy could be used. And that's the closest I came to it.

Mario W. Cardullo: In the meantime, I was still at COMSAT, and I was getting annoyed. It was frustrating working with the Chairman and President as the corporate planner because they did not want to invest funds in maritime satellites or any of the other ideas that I had come up with. It was at this time that I started taking an interest in medical data.

Again, this is all related to my journey to RFID. There was a program developed by the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) for the analysis of electrocardiograms (EKGs). I figured out a way of doing things electronically. Not just the circuits themselves, but putting together a terminal for digitizing data.

The Development of the Encoder


Mario W. Cardullo: In August of 1969, I was giving lectures at the Industrial Management Center at Harvard University, up in Lake Placid. I was giving out papers on the many ways you could use systems engineering, using the Catholic Church as the main example. Here, a gentleman by the name of Daniel J. Webster came up to me and offered me a drive back to Albany. He was an engineer who made a lot of money from investing in a company on Long Island that made tape drives.

During the ride, he asked about my interests, and I explained my frustrations at COMSAT to him, that I didn’t see any future there in the long run. I also told him about the idea for medical data. There were thousands of ideas that I could draw on at the company, but we did not have any funding. So I wasn’t going to waste my time at that point. I was 32 or 33 years old at that time, a father of four children.

Mario W. Cardullo: He suggested that I put together a team and a business plan to brief him. And if he approves of it, he would get investors in New York to invest in us. I was thrilled at the opportunity. So I did put a team together, including a neighbor of mine who did the Catholic study with me, another neighbor who was a cardiologist and marketing expert, and an engineer who was both an electrical engineer and circuit designer.

I was the systems thermodynamicist on the team. I told my team that we couldn’t be a one-trick pony, and that we had to show Daniel Webster a couple of ideas. I pulled out my notebook and started telling them about a medical device that can keep track of things, but could also be used for a number of things, including toll systems. I called this the encoder.

Mario W. Cardullo: Yes. He came down and we briefed him, and showed him the encoder. It was very simple to make – the device had no batteries, and comprised solely of a transceiver with a non-volatile memory. It possessed capabilities to transmit, receive, and modify data, with an adaptable memory component. We informed Dan about the myriad of potential applications, such as employing the encoder in toll systems, for door access, handling medical data, and more. Dan said “Well, you got something there, and its unusual.”

The next thing I know, about a week later, I signed a cheque for $50,000 from various people I didn’t even know – investors included a piano maker, a real estate lawyer, an orthodontist, a guy from Wall Street, Dan himself, and a couple of other guys. With that, I told my team to quit their jobs so that we could start a business from January 1st, 1970. It was definitely a gamble, since we all had children to provide for. But I gave them all pieces of the action. And so, we started a company called the Communications Services Corporation.

Mario W. Cardullo: The first thing we built was these terminals that collected EKGs, digitized them, and stored them on a digital cassette deck with a 120 baud modem. We gave these terminals to hospitals in West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland who didn't have cardiologists. We also used something called the Casares program, developed by the NIH. It had to be digital to analyze the EKG. We didn't know it at the time, but we were the first in the world to transmit medical data digitally.

In the meantime, we also sat down and tried to figure out how to build the encoder. I met with patent lawyers in D.C. and I told them our ideas. I put my chief engineer Bill Parks on the patent because I believe in giving to people. I didn’t want to be like Alexander Graham Bell who put all the patents in his name without mentioning the contributions of the staff.

From there, we built the encoder for a toll system. We figured that this was really what we needed at that time, which would cover the cost of building something that was more than just keeping track of inventory.

Economic & Patent Challenges

RFID Patent Challenges

Dr. Mario W. Cardullo faced many challenges on the road to RFID. This included patent violations.

Mario W. Cardullo: We did have a fair share of challenges. In 1971, Dan set up a meeting with the Port Authority in New York for us. We went up to New York with two transceivers. There, we met with the Port Authority on the George Washington Bridge. That's where we set it up and showed them how you could use the encoder to add and subtract toll data and manage a toll system.

device of that size out of the window of their car. In response, I told them that it was an easy solution. You just take a picture of the license plate, keep track of it, and you can send them a ticket. Unfortunately, the idea was rejected on the premise that it would be a violation of the amendment rights of the drivers. With that, we went back to Maryland. We were eating up money and at that time, in 1971/72, the market had really crashed.

Mario W. Cardullo: Dan wanted to go public initially, because that was what he sold to the investors. I disagreed with how the investors wanted to invest on the condition that we would hypothecate the patent to them.

At this point, my staff were worrying about how they are going to feed their families. So we agreed to this. I stepped out and stayed on the board and they continued. But it just didn't work out. A year later – I had already left the board at that time – the company went belly up and the patent was taken by two investors – the orthodontist and the real estate lawyer from New York. The problem was, they didn’t do anything with it. I still owned about 15–20 percent of the company and the patent, so I kept on calling them up. I kept telling them that they had to do something with it – to no avail.

They told me that it was too valuable. So I went off and started to do investment banking in Mexico and in the United States because I had some friends there. I also gave a few lectures there as well on applying systems engineering to dentistry.

Meanwhile, in 1973, the very first RFID patent, which I termed the encoder, was granted. This was what I called the encoder. However, at the end of that year, the Port Authority went to companies like GE, asking them to build it on their behalf, violating my patent.

By the time I found out, I lacked the financial resources to pursue legal action, and it was already too late. So that's as far as I win at that time. I got very discouraged. It turned out to be a 25-million-dollar industry, and I never made a dime.

Mario W. Cardullo: Since then, I’ve been involved with many things. I had two Master’s degrees and later got a doctorate in information technology. I was a professor for around 25 years.

16 of those at Virginia Tech, where I taught the capstone and engineering management, and strategic management in the MBA program. I’ve also written two books. The first called Introduction to Managing Technology, the second called “Technological Entrepreneurs: Enterprise Formation, Funding, and Growth.

The second one was around 480 pages – all handwritten before I typed it myself.

The Future of RFID

The Future of RFID

Turning 89 in May 2024, Dr. Mario W. Cardullo leaves behind an aweinspiring history that led to RFID, and entrusts future developments to the younger generations.

Mario W. Cardullo: That’s correct. An invention of mine encompassed a device integrating RFID, GPS, and a storage system featuring a compression algorithm. This system could retain information for a duration ranging from eight to 18 months.

It operates with active RFID. As you drive and pass an interrogator, the device downloads, clears it, and charges you for the use of the vehicle, based on the vehicle size and weight, and the also based on the streets you are on. Although it’s been invented, the problem is that of data security. Nobody wants to be tracked. But it is possible to be automatically cleared after you’re charged.

Mario W. Cardullo: Yes. 10 years ago, I was asked by a group to speak as a keynote speaker on RFID. It was the international group that was there in London, and I was giving a speech in Whitehall. One of the things they asked me to do is to look at the future of RFID. To this, I told them that the next step was to reduce an RFID to the nano size – to 150 nanomites.

I put together a small group to figure out ways of doing this. We had a little lab in Berkeley, and a couple of us from Washington. The problem when you reduce the nano is something called the Chu limit. How do you get around that Chu limit? There’s a way. Let's say that you have chips that you produce that are 150 nanometers. They're basically dust particles with very simple circuits. If you put them closer and closer together, they meet the Chu limit. And then there are larger ones that can pick that up and transmit.

But how do you get the energy to do this? It's not totally reflective. You have a piece of electric crystal and you use that to generate a very small current, which then powers it up. But when you have billions of these things, you can put them in paint, clothes, in virtually anything. You’re not using electrical energy. It’s not wireless.

As stated in my original patent, it was powered not only by RF, but also by light and sound. So I then returned from London and compared different patents for different ideas. I hired a lawyer and filed and got the patent for the method for 150 nanometers or less.

Mario W. Cardullo: No, unfortunately, our group broke up since we were not able to get the $15 million we required for funding. It’s one thing when you reach age 80. It’s another thing when you’re 85 years old and still playing around with stuff. So I leave it now for others to do. I’ve become a footnote.

AI is the future. With AI, the whole question is on the quantity of data. With an AI system, you can get a forecast on where the enemy is going to be, for example. I have a paper that's been accepted for a meeting in Portland, Oregon on AI together with RFID, and Nano RFID. The paper details what you can do with this technology. The list goes on and on.

An Inventor's Perspective

An Inventor's Perspective

“All ideas come from something else. It's only very few that are “de novo”, as we say”.

Mario W. Cardullo: Well, I came up with a patent on a pasta machine. This was another business of mine. I raised $3.5 million for a company I named Yankee Noodle Dandy, and we had two units. I raised that money and invented that machine to cook pasta to order in 55 seconds. We built these machines and we were in business for three years.

I was teaching cooking as a hobby. In the end, the business ended up costing me over a million dollars. Based on that, I’m probably not a good business guy, but I do see a lot in technology and where it could go.

Mario W. Cardullo: Inventors come up with ideas and solutions for things. Until Dan J. Webster said that my idea had fantastic potential, it was, to me, just an idea and a concept. He was the one who saw the market value of it.

To answer your questions concretely, the thought has never crossed my mind. As an inventor, you just make things and you hope that they work and that you get some return from them. You never really think that your inventions are going to change the world.

Mario W. Cardullo: During my time at COMSAT, in 1968, I did a study on an aeronautical satellite. I got the U.S. Navy to give me a printout of all ships at sea in the Atlantic. There were 10,000 ships in the North Atlantic at any one time in 1968/69. There was no way to communicate with them in the middle of the ocean because the frequencies would go straight up.

Ships were sinking and there were people dying. So I wrote a paper and gave it to a meeting at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on how you could use the satellite and the data to solve this problem. At the end of the meeting, I got a standing ovation. I thought to myself, “What am I getting a standing ovation for? This is just obvious”.

I met a man called Chuck Dorian. Captain Dorian was in charge of communications for the U.S. Coast Guard, and he was a member of the International Maritime Consultative Organization. He told me to write another paper for him to present at his meeting, as something COMSAT may be interested in. He came back from the meeting and told me that the Soviets approved of the idea to put up a transponder for people at sea. This has saved over 100,000 people.

Now that alone is the payment. That’s when I knew I had done something worthwhile. To be completely honest, I never had that feeling with the RFID, not until I was told by the General Head of Logistics for the U.S. Army that my invention and ideas had saved the lives of a lot of soldiers. Those are moments that make you feel like you’ve done something worthwhile. And that’s me.

Anja Van Bocxlaer: We can certainly all appreciate that. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

Chuck Evanhoe: We look back now at an incredible history of how you were able to leverage previous technologies into your RFID solution. When you first do something, it takes a while for the true results to surface. Take the barcode on a Wrigley’s pack of gum 50 years ago. It took another 10 years before it was in widespread use and started to be scanned just to have automation.

From what we heard from you in this interview, RFID followed much of the same path. You invented it and it was really the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the Walmart mandate that really kick-started the interest in these technologies back in the late 90s, early 2000s.

Now that it’s been re-implemented and Walmart is asking for end-item marking, the market is going to expand even more. It simply takes a long time for some technologies to be adopted.

Mario W. Cardullo: Yes, and let me add one thing. We talked about the pasta machine. You know what that's based on? All these technologies are based on something else that builds on it. The benefaction of ores. That's where I got the idea. When you make copper or you use a flotation process. That’s how I separated the material from the pasta when you cooked it. You floated it off, and then you circle it.

All ideas come from something else. It's only very few that are “de novo”, as we say.

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