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RFID pioneer taps out one last time

Charlie Walton

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Obit Pioneer of radio tagging Charlie Walton has died, aged 89, having successfully predicted – and popularised – the technology, although he saw the potential too early to reap the reward.

The first patent to mention RFID, for a "portable radio frequency emitting identifier" was filed by Charlie Walton and issued to his company, Proximity Devices, in 1983. Charlie Walton set up Proximity Devices in 1970, following a decade at IBM, and in 1973 the company had been issued the first patent mentioning the concept of radio tags powered using the querying radio signal. Most of those patents expired in the '90s, denying royalties to the inventor just as the plunging cost of electronics made RFID so much more practical.

Basic RFID tags only respond with an identification number, and these days they reflect a modified version of the querying signal rather than harvesting current from the incoming request to create an outgoing transmission as the first models did, but the essence of query and response remains the same and powers an ever-increasing number of process automations.

Walton predicted the use of RFID keys to open doors; his first commercial licensee was a door lock developed by Schlage, but these days basic tags turn up managing a bar tab, not to mention attached to dope plants for tracking legal growth, and, perhaps most impressively: printed.

Like most radio pioneers, Walton got to play with the technology in the military – the US Army Signals Corp in this instance – though he did already boast a degree in electrical engineering, which he followed up with a Masters, so the Army can't take all the credit.

Military service was followed by a decade of employment at IBM, which ended when Walton went off to exploit his ideas about short-range wireless. That resulted in more than 50 patents, though not untold riches, as Venturebeat recalls.

Near Field Communications, poised to take the world by storm, is a descendant of RFID. NFC draws the power it needs to do proper encryption though an induction loop, and is capable of responding to cryptographic challenges rather than just mutely echoing an identity number, but the lineage is obvious.

NFC gets all the headlines, but basic RFID chips are still finding new applications as both the tags and the readers get cheaper. As with barcodes before them, radio tags have huge potential, but one which would have taken a lot longer to be realised without Charlie Walton. ®

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