Hard Times Promote Innovation: RFID's Road to Mainstream

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The bar code was patented in 1952 but not used widely until the tumultuous '70s. Does radio-frequency ID require a similar kickstart?

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The New York Times obituary for Alan Haberman, the Massachusetts supermarket executive who led the industry's successful movement to implement uniform bar codes, makes an interesting point. The technology was patented in 1952, but widespread use was delayed not only because of the limits of hardware and software, but because there was no standardization. Some countries have powerful independent standards organizations, like Germany's Deutsches Institut für Normung [DIN], but the U.S. relies on industry committees. What finally galvanized American retailers and manufacturers, united by Haberman? The 1970s economy:

[A]mid rising inflation, supermarkets wanted to cut labor costs by automating the ways their wares were stocked, inventoried and rung up. A committee of executives was convened, with Mr. Haberman as its chairman, to choose a standard symbol that could be used nationwide to encode product data electronically.

The 21st-century counterpart of the bar code, radio frequency identification (RFID) has not yet found its own Haberman -- partly because of the unintended consequences of his advocacy. The big winner was not his own companies, Hills-Korvette and Finast, but a still relatively obscure newcomer in Arkansas, Walmart, that was exploiting point-of-sale and inventory data more effectively than anybody else, to the consternation of competitors large and small.

Would Haberman's colleagues have been so eager to sign on if they had known? Today Walmart is the pioneer of RFID, but others haven't been so eager to follow because of the privacy issues it raises. Whether or not it's an "evolutionary dead end," as the technology publisher and guru Tim O'Reilly has declared, the days of chummy consensus are over.

Image: Mick Tsikas/Reuters.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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