RFID: The Early Years 1980-1990
Updated 9/27/02

If you were involved with RFID during these early years and would like to add further information about RFID developments in the early years (1970-1985),  please email me at: with details.   I'll be glad to add it to the page.  I know, for example, that there was military use prior to 1980 and some commercial use, too.  I believe that Sensormatic made EAS "tags" in the early '70's.

One article published has been available at the AIM RFID web site in the  February 2002 RFID Newsletter giving the perspective of another early RFID pioneer, Dr. Jerry Landt of Transcore (Amtech).  I highly recommend reading this excellent article which picks up some of the earlier work done in the 1940 through 1970 decades.

   During World War II  the British, understandably, desired to be able to distinguish between their own returning aircraft and those of the enemy since the coast of occupied France was less than 25 miles away.   A system was developed whereby a transponder was placed on Allied aircraft so that by giving the appropriate response to an interrogating signal, a "friendly" aircraft could automatically be distinguished from a "foe". 

  This was the IFF or Identify: Friend or Foe system upon which present day commercial and private aviation traffic control is still based.  It was the first obvious use of Radio Frequency IDentification (RFID).

  In the late 60's or early 70's the need for security and safety surrounding the use of nuclear materials drove further development of RFID "tagging" of equipment and personnel.  Around 1977 the technology which had been developed in government labs for these applications was transferred to the public sector by Los Alamos Scientific Laboratories (LASL) resulting in two companies forming to explore possible civilian uses.  These companies were Amtech(now part of Transcore) in New Mexico and Identronix Research in Santa Cruz, California.  

   Several applications were explored by these two companies.  In the photo above, Matt Lezin and Tom Wilson are implanting an early RFID transponder in the back of a dairy cow to allow tracking of the animal's ID and its temperature.  The thought, being researched by the University of Chicago, was that the animal's health, ovulation, and so forth could be determined by tracking each animals identification and temperature. Furthermore, automatic feeding could be implemented without overfeeding of individual animals if each animal's unique ID code could be obtained from the transponder.

   Another player at IDX, Inc. was Vic Grinich, better known for his earlier position as one of the "traitorous eight" who split off from Shockley Labs to form Fairchild.  Vic was President of IDX for most of the period in which I worked there (1980-1987) but left about a year after IDX was purchased by Allen Bradley to form Escort Memory Systems.

   Like something straight out of the BBC TV series "Connections",  Matt Lezin was involved with this effort because of his father's cow hide tanning business.  Up to one third of a cow's hide can be ruined for use as leather by all the traditional "branding" which takes place so that the seemingly unlikely combination of Carbon 14, Cows, and Cowcatchers (see below) makes perfect sense in spite of the apparent dissimilarities of the nuclear industry, tanning, and railroads.

   The railroads get involved after a disasterous attempt to use Bar Code technology to keep track of rolling stock. America's railroads then turned to RFID as a possible solution to many problems caused by the unique environment of their industry. 

   Radio frequency tagging has the advantage of longer read distance, ability to read through dirt, rain, snow, fog, oil, and non-metallic objects, and, of course, the ability to read in direct sunlight.. a real problem for visual light or infrared based systems like bar codes!

   Some other obvious applications were spun off from this original application including identification of fleet vehicles (tractors/trailers/containerized cargo), automatic toll collection on highways, access control to secured or monitored areas, and even the Remote Keyless Entry (RKE) systems now very common for automobile access.

While most of the early Identronix and Amtech research was based on 900 MHz and 900/1800 MHz systems, by 1983 there were RFID products at LF, MF, VHF, UHF, and microwave frequencies.  By 1984, RFID tags were regularly being manufactured by several U.S. and European companies.

   Some tags could be programmed once at the time of manufacture or manually programmed at the time of installation. These are generally referred to as WORM or Write Once, Read Many tags.

   Some could be electronically programmed either by direct contact or via the RF link. These are generally referred to as Programmable tags. Since the tags were usually EEPROM based, they can be re-programmed somewhere between 10,000-500,000 times.

   Several companies even provided full Read / Write (R/W) capability of bits to Kilobytes.   Identronix, in fact, had built up a number of 64K Byte Read/Write prototypes for one customer's experimentation and offered and sold 2K and 8K Read-Write tags by 1984.

   Most Low Frequency (LF or "VLF") companies chose to use a transponder system where a tag received both its power and carrier (or clock) from the interrogating source (reader). Some UHF companies (such as IDX) also provided totally passive transponders whose only source was the energy coming from the reader.
AB RFID 1985
    Those companies whose tags were performing Read/Write functions or RF based Programming generally provided batteries as a back up for memory and/or to provide sufficient energy for internal microprocessors.

   The IDX Programmable tag, however, was programmed using the interrogator energy alone. It was EEPROM based which allowed programming without use of batteries though requiring fairly close spacing (inches) to allow transfer of enough voltage and energy to power the unit during its programming mode.

Since the read function of the IDX tag required only 1.5-2.0 Volts, the normal read range for these units achieved up to a 5 foot range under Part 15 operation.

These tags had a raw data rate of 250 KB/s and provided 40 Alpha-Numeric characters.

   The IDX tag had been developed specifically for the U.S. automobile manufacturing industry which regularly exposed it to 200-225 degrees Celsius temperatures in paint ovens so that use of any kind of battery was not practical! The goal was to provide at least 200 trips through the entire assembly procedure  in order to provide a low enough cost per use to make up for the $50-65 price of the tag.

   By the mid 1980's the primary effort in RFID shifted somewhat from new applications to performance improvement, cost reduction, and size reduction.  LF tags, in fact, have become almost a commodity item for many applications with larger companies like Texas Instruments (TIRIS) and Motorola (Indala) among those offering high volume production at relatively low cost. 

   There are bigger players in Europe including BTG, EM Microelectronic, Philips, and Sokymat.

   IDX, by the way, was purchased by Allen Bradley (Rockwell Automation, these days) and operations were moved to their Milwaukee plant in 1988. They provided high temperature, programmable tags to the U.S. auto industry for assembly line operations until early in 1999 but now refer all customers to Escort Memory Systems in Scotts Valley.  Looks as if the product has gone full circle since Scotts Valley is right next door to Santa Cruz, CA which is where IDX was located!

For a list of web sites for various RFID companies, go to the Eagle's Nest:
RFID Web Sites Page          Eagle's Nest           RF Design & Technical Page