RF-ID is the technology allowing a low-power or no-power chip to communicate wirelessly. Dongles in a car that pay tolls, credit-cards that can be charged without contact, and badges that open doors are all RF-ID applications.

RF-ID stands for Radio Frequency Identification and works by wirelessly transmitting what is essentially a barcode. There are two basic types: one that has a power source that is able to transmit much further and those without a power source, wirelessly powered by the unit that reads the codes. Non-powered RF-ID devices, including name badges and credit-cards, are more common. However, powered RF-ID devices — like the clickers that open car doors and serve as a key, or that pay tolls — have more uses. (But, as anybody who has ever lost a car remote knows, they are extremely expensive.)

The first crude RF-ID systems were invented by Nazis, who found that rolling their planes a certain way changed radio waves being reflected identifying them as Axis rather than Allied planes. The Allies built on that, developing a system the planes themselves transmitted, an early “friend-or-foe” device.

Researchers continued building on the systems, with the most widespread use being anti-theft devices that triggered a radio wave to beep, alerting a store something was being carried out. Despite the simplicity of the system, and that it dates back to the 1960s, this type of antitheft device remains in widespread use.

In 1973, British-born American immigrant Charles Walton patented a device to transmit serial numbers that unlock doors. Walton would go on to patent many more RF-ID devices and is generally considered the innovator of modern RF-ID systems.

The US government created a system in the 1970s to track nuclear materials, including nuclear weapons, by “buzzing” a transponder in a truck as it drove by. Scientists who developed it eventually left to form the first automatic toll payment system. Another US government agency, the Department of Agriculture, devised a passive non-battery operated system to track cows.

RF-ID technology continues to develop, with non-powered chips that operate at ever further distances. Animals, especially dogs, routinely have chips implanted under their skin to help locate an owner if they become lost. A small number of people have done the same. Although the technology for people and dogs is essentially the same, there are obvious ethical differences.

RF-ID chips are used in supply chains, to track boxes for example, but are typically too expensive to replace barcodes for ordinarily priced individual items. However, scientists continue working on the project with the goal of simply shopping and walking out of a store, with all items scanned automatically. In 2018, Amazon created a store called Amazon Go that uses cameras, sensors, and machine learning which functions this way. However, Amazon Go does not use RF-ID chips, which would increase the cost structure.

In the future, the use of RF-ID chips is likely to dwindle as cameras and similar “seeing” devices increase in power and decrease in price. The chips, no matter how inexpensive, will always cost more than printed barcodes which themselves may become obsolete as computers simply recognize items in much the same way that people do.

Paid Cable Television Channels


Charles Dolan was a cable TV pioneer who received a license to build a cable television system in lower Manhattan. Due to New York City restrictions, cables needed to run underground, vastly increasing the cost of the infrastructure. New Yorkers lacked enthusiasm. By 1971, Dolan only had 400 subscribers.

To increase sales, Dolan eventually decided to create a paid channel available only to cable subscribers. Working with Time-Life, they developed the concept under the codename Home Box Office. Straightaway, focus groups and customer surveys overwhelmingly rejected the idea but Dolan moved forward anyway.


Dolan’s HBO launched Nov. 8, 1972, and carried hockey game unavailable over broadcast TV. It was channel 21 on the tiny Teleservice cable system in Pennsylvania. Subsequently, the film Sometimes a Great Notion was broadcast after the game.

HBO is now known as the home of The Sopranos, Sex in the City, and Game of Thrones but it took a while to find its legs. Earlier, in Feb. 1973, the next HBO special broadcast, a three-hour event called the Pennsylvania Polka Festival.

Dolan’s cable system continued bleeding money. In 1973, seeing a long-term opportunity to own a cable-TV system in Manhattan, Time-Life purchased 20% of Dolan’s struggling company. However, not long after, they fired him. Soon after that, they acquired HBO.

In Sept. 1973, HBO struggled with 8,000 subscribers across 14 cable systems, all in Pennsylvania. By April 1975, there were 100,000 subscribers in Pennsylvania and New York State. The young channel turned profitable.

In Sept. 1975, HBO became the first television network to broadcast to cable providers via satellite. The strategy is common now but, at the time, was an enormous risk. They expanded their footprint and, by 1980, operating in all 50 states.

Custom Content

By the 1990s, there were countless television stations. To differentiate, HBO began to create their own programming rather than relying solely on content available to others. The Larry Sanders Show was popular. In 1998, HBO launched the $68 million From Earth to the Moon miniseries and the comedy Sex in the City. The Sopranos, launched in 1999, cemented the channel’s reputation for movie-quality entertainment delivered on television.

It’s difficult to describe how terrible television was before the influence of HBO. Slate’s Peter Aspden described a season of the broadcast mid-1980’s TV show Dallas as “Borgesian surrealism (that) gave every impression of having been scribed on the back of a spent cocaine packet in a Los Angeles traffic jam.”

Indeed, countless social commentators note we’re in a rebirth of television, with a plethora of high-quality content. As of 2019, Hollywood is fighting against admitting Made-For-TV movies to be eligible for Academy Awards. It’s only a matter of time until old-guard Hollywood will loses that fight. Dolan’s HBO is largely to thank.

Ted Hoff’s General Purpose Microprocessor

“…even though science and technology are wonderful, what really gets them out there for people to use is to have businesses built around them. It takes savvy businessmen as well as savvy technologists to make that work.”

Tedd Hoff


Ted Hoff had access to then state-of-the-art vacuum tube circuits in high school. In 1954, he graduated and gained access to then-new transistors and magnetic core memory. Eventually, he earned a bachelor’s degree when came to Stanford, earning a Ph.D. in 1962.

During that time, he talked to Rex Rice, an on-campus recruiter for Fairchild Semiconductor. Particularly, the Traitorous Eight founded Fairchild and Doriot student Arthur Rock funded the business.

Hoff believed the new field of integrated circuits could work well for memory, replacing the clunky and relatively enormous core memory. Eventually, this led to a referral to Bob Noyce. He worked at Fairchild but was starting a new company, Intel. Evidently, Noyce intended Intel to focus on semiconductor memory and was searching for somebody with Hoff’s background.


In 1970, while waiting for the technology to mature, Intel decided to build one-off chips for the desktop calculator market. Eventually, Hoff was assigned to assist building a chip for Japanese company Busicom. At first, Japanese engineers were expected to do all the work with Hoff acting as a liaison and coordinator.

However, Hoff noticed the Japanese design was sub-optimal. There were about a dozen chips and the entire system appeared needlessly complex. Hoff raised his concerns to Noyce who encouraged him to make a “backup” design.

Hoff’s design incorporated random access memory and programmability. It was vastly simpler yet overall more powerful by being programmable rather than single-purpose. After a meeting, the customer adopted Hoff and Intel’s design.

Federico Faggin joined Intel and refined Hoff’s idea, optimizing the general-purpose chip to take advantage of Intel technology. By January 1971, the team had a fully functional microprocessor.

The Microprocessor is Born

Their original goal was an embedded system, not a PC chip. Embedded systems are specialty chips that people never see; they make other machines work. The final chip, renamed the Intel 4004, contained between 2,100 and 2,300 transistors, depending upon how one counted. In 1974, Intel’s 4004 was followed by the 8008 then the 8080. That chip became the foundation of the Altair, the first microcomputer. The Altair inspired a young Bill Gates and Co. to start a software company and a young Steve Jobs and Wozniak to form a computer company.

Consumer Shared Computer Network (CompuServe)

CompuServe is the first computer network targeted towards ordinary people though it did not start out that way.


Jeff Wilkins sold burglar alarms. His father-in-law ran a small insurance company and needed to buy a computer. However, the DEC model he wanted had far more computing power than his father required.

Wilkins realized he could use the computer modem to sell extra capacity to other businesses that did not want to purchase or maintain an entire computer. Companies had been sharing mainframe computers for some time. However, Wilkins is the first to miniaturize the idea, to sell time on a relatively low-power computer.

In 1969, he launched the business and it quickly became popular. Wilkins quit his job selling alarms and set out full-time selling computing power.

He expanded the idea in 1978 with the introduction of personal computers, though early-on there wasn’t much reason to purchase time from him.

CompuServe Grows

In July 1980, the Columbus Dispatch newspaper became the first paper to publish electronically, on Wilkins’ CompuServe. Thanks to relatively low-cost personal computers the service began to rapidly grow. In Q3 1980, CompuServe had 3,600 subscribers. By the end of Q1, 1981, they’d grown to over 10,000 customers.

Interestingly, the most popular CompuServe app was text chatting. About 20 percent of total usage consisted of people chatting to one another. Reading the newspaper accounted for just 5 percent of total usage.

By 1984, CompuServe charged $5/hr. after 6 PM but the service was mind-numbingly slow at 300bps.

Despite the slow speed, the service continued to grow. By 1984, CompuServe had 60,000 subscribers. In 1986, tax preparation company H&R Block purchased the company, paying $68 million. By 1993, CompuServe had over 1.5 million subscribers throughout the world.


Eventually, CompuServe was overtaken by upstart competitor America Online (AOL) which offered lower rates and more content. However, AOL was soon enough shuttered by cable companies and internet service providers. These market incumbents often provided faster speeds at lower prices often bundled with television and phone service. Additionally, they enjoyed US government monopolies on the cable lines used to transmit high-speed data.

Intrauterine Device (IUD)

Intrauterine Devices (IUD’s) are long-lasting passive birth control for women. Once inserted they work anywhere from ten years to life. IUD’s are the most common birth-control method in the world.


IUD’s were first developed in 1909 by Richard Richter of Waldenburg, Germany. Ernst Gräfenberg also supported the devices. He is the doctor the “G-Spot” is named after. However, neither device caught on.

In the early 1960s, Jack Lippes created plastic IUDs that became the standard-bearer for years. Lazar Margulies improved the IUD, making it possible to insert without dilating the cervix.

There are two types of IUD’s, hormonal and non-hormonal. Hormonal slowly release hormones that slow down or stop menstruation and must be replaced every decade. Conversely, non-hormonal use copper that creates a hostile environment for sperm. By comparison, non-hormonal IUD’s theoretically last indefinitely.

Unlike sterilization, which might be reversible, removing an IUD restores fertility to its prior state virtually immediately. Specifically, there are no lingering side effects beyond the initial comfort of insertion and, in the case of non-hormonal IUD’s, a short period of mild cramping.

Dalkon Shield

One early IUD, the Dalkon Shield, damaged both women and the reputation of IUD’s for decades. Invented in 1968 by Dr. Hugh Davis, the plastic Dalkon Shield was intended for women who never had children. Eventually, it became wildly popular and, by 1970, over 600,000 were implanted. However, reports soon surfaced about severe pelvic infections. The manufacturer reiterated the device was safe. By June 1974, Notwithstanding their claims, six women had died of complications. The manufacturer finally discontinued the product.

Newer IUD’s function differently than the Dalkin Shield and, over decades, have proven to be as safe or safer than other birth control methods.

Markedly, IUD’s are especially popular in China. From 1980 to 2014, 324 million Chinese women started using IUD’s as part of the now-abandoned one-baby policy. However, Concerned about a lack of babies, the Chinese government is now funding IUD removal, illustrating the benefits of IUD over the more permanent tubal ligation.

Discount Airline

As the airline market developed, the US found it necessary to regulate interstate air transport as a “public utility.” Significantly, the “Civil Aeronautics Board” (CAB) regulated fares, routes, and schedules.

The benefit of regulation was predictability and widespread routes. For example, a carrier that wanted to fly from New York to Chicago might be required to open three far less profitable routes to lesser-demand airports. Conversely, traveler to major hubs subsidized the lesser-used routes through higher ticket prices.

Industry incumbent airlines favored regulation because it kept competition at bay. Indeed, the interstate airlines of the day needn’t worry about competition between one another nor from a startup.

Eventually, entrepreneur Kenny Friedkin realized California alone was a large enough market to support a small airline. Because his routes did not cross state boundaries, his airline was exempt from CAB regulation and free to set their own routes and rates.

Pacific Southwest Airlines

In 1949, Friedkin launched Pacific Southwest Airlines. They flew a Douglas DC-3 and operated out of a refitted WWII surplus latrine. The sole route was between San Diego and Burbank. However, by 1955, they upgraded to two DC-4’s, painting them to look like DC-6’s. Pacific Southwest added San Francisco and, later, Sacramento and San Jose. In time, they steadily increased the number of flights.

Friedkin liked to have fun, both in the offices and in the air. His motto was “The World’s Friendliest Airline.” He painted smiles on the nose-cones of his planes and encouraged his flight staff to joke with passengers. Unfortunately, Friedkin died of a stroke in 1962 leaving his son, a pilot, as the owner of the business. They stumbled for years, attempted to diversify into foreign markets like radio, and suffered a fatal crash in 1978. In 1988, Pacific Southwest sold to the airline that became USAir.

Pacific Southwest Flight Attendant Goofing Around

Southwest Airlines

Herb Kelleher noticed Pacific Southwest and decided to create a similar airline in Texas. In 1967, Kelleher launched Air Southwest later renamed to Southwest Airlines. Kelleher’s Southwest initially flew between Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio.

In 1971, the US began to deregulate airlines, enabling competition across state lines. Kelleher jumped on the opportunity and became the first national discount airline in the US. Today, Southwest remains the largest discount US airline. Discounting and deregulation vastly lowered the cost of airfare, yet small markets are still served. Some of the prior regulated airlines failed, most notably Pan American World Airways (Pan Am). However, their failure is likely more attributable to financial shenanigans than deregulation or failure to compete in their respective markets.


Videoconferencing is well over 50 years old. Today, it is fast and virtually free over the Internet. However, aside from extremely formal or informal events, videoconferencing has largely failed to catch on.


AT&T introduced videoconference at the 1964 World’s Fair. People in New York waited in line to walk into a booth and spend a few minutes talking to a stranger, with voice and video, in Disneyland, in California.

Simultaneously, they tried to commercialize the service by adding devices in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. The device was called AT&T Picturephone Mod I. However, the most common pricing plan cost $80 for 15 minutes of voice/video chat (about $660 adjusted to 2019). Three minutes of videoconferencing cost $16 ($130 adjusted to 2019). In the first six months of service, 71 customers paid for calls and volumes declined from there.

Additionally, besides the high prices, the video was tiny. Black-and-white screens measured 13 cm x 12 cm (about 5×5 inches) and connections oftentimes dropped.

Eventually, AT&T released a picturephone with the same internal parts but a more attractive plastic box. However, potential buyers still passed; the value video provided did not correlate to the additional cost either in terms of money or convenience.

AT&T Keeps Trying

Between 1966 and 1973, AT&T invested more than half a billion dollars developing and marketing the videophone. They renamed it the Picturephone Mod II, targeted to the corporate market. Nobody was interested.

By 1982, they created a Picturephone Service Meeting. The equipment and call costs were exorbitant, and nobody was interested.

Finally, in January 1992, AT&T released the VideoPhone 2500, a phone with a small color video screen. At the initial price of $1.5 million, the phone attracted literally no sales. They reduced the price to $1,000 and allowed people to rent the phone for $30 per day. Buyers refused even at these lower prices.

By the late 1990s, free videoconferencing appeared on the web but, even as it evolved, the product still remains largely a niche market. Even with a price of zero, many customers will prefer texting or speaking rather than videoconferencing. One exception is in certain office situations, where high-end videoconferencing systems can reduce the price of in-person travel.

Reasonably Priced Business Computer (IBM/360)

The IBM/360 is the first mass computer, designed as a general-purpose computer affordable for mid-sized businesses yet powerful enough for large enterprises.


In 1962, IBM’s revenue was $2.5 billion. CEO Thomas Watson Jr. believed in the vision of a general-purpose computer that supports timesharing, the ability of a computer to do multiple things at once. Thereafter, he invested a staggering $5 billion ($42.5 billion adjusted to 2019), double the company’s annual revenue, to develop the IBM/360. Indeed, more than 100,000 people scattered over 165 cities worked together to create the IBM/360.

One key feature of the IBM/360 was forward and backward compatibility, along with upgradability. Before the IBM/360, businesses purchased a computer and, when they outgrew it, purchased a new computer. In contrast, the IBM/360 enabled extra peripherals, increasing the capacity of the computer. Additionally, a significant amount of older IBM software ran on an emulator.

Prior to the IBM/360, computers were typically custom-tailored to the task at hand. Scientific computers were different than business computers. Additionally, a computer to run an accounting system was different than a computer to run inventory management. Much like Intel created a general-purpose microchip, IBM created a general-purpose overall computer.

The IBM/360 is one of the few computers that both sit in the Computer History Museum and is still in use, 55 years after its introduction. Even though the vast majority of smartphones contain more computing power and memory, the 360 oftentimes does one task, do it well, and have done it for decades. Businesses should move the tasks to newer computers but the 360 is so reliable that migration is oftentimes a low priority.

Third-Party Peripheral Market

Besides forward and backward combability with other computers, IBM allowed third-party companies to create certified peripherals for the 360. While this idea seems common now, it was a groundbreaking experiment when the 360 launched. “Half a million saved is half a million earned,” read third-party peripheral makers advertising low-cost high-quality add-on’s.


The IBM/360 was incredibly successful. IBM was unable to keep up with orders for years. Eventually, even the Soviet Union copied it and named their System/360 knockoff the “Ryad” computer. By 1989, the 360 and successor computers accounted for more than $130 billion in annual revenue.

Bullet Trains

Bullet trains are capable of travel at 300kph (186mph). They cost less to operate than aircraft and have a lower environmental impact.

Japan invented bullet trains and started acquiring land for their super-fast train in the 1930s, before WWII. In 1959, they broke ground for the first bullet train, or Shinkansen as they’re called in Japan. On Oct. 1, 1964, the first bullet train opened for traffic at 6 AM from Tokyo to Osaka. The train was shown to the world in time for the summer Olympic Games in Tokyo that year.  

By 1975, the Sanyo Shinkansen connected Osaka and Fukuoka. The 611km trip takes about five hours, one-third less than the time required to travel by car assuming no traffic.

Over time, Japan added many lines. Trains featured multi-class service and dining cars.

In 1981, France unveiled the TGV bullet train system and the Inter-City Express opened in Germany in 1991. China has since built countless bullet trains. The most technologically challenging train is the Eurostar, which runs under the English Channel. In 2019, the 50.45 km. (31.4 mi.) remains the longest undersea tunnel in the world. It took six years to complete and cost £4.65 billion (about £12 billion in 2019). The American Society of Civil Engineers label the train and tunnel one of the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World.”

Cordless Tools

In 1895, C&E Fein, a German company, invented the first electric tool. It was a handheld drill weighing 16.5 pounds. The drill was underpowered because it ran on DC electricity. It also required two people to operate.

In 1910, Duncan Black sold his car for $600 and used the funds to open a machine shop in Baltimore. His friend and business partner, Alonzo Decker, joined the venture.

Their first project involved improving the C&E Fein electric drill. They looked towards Colt’s pistol handle to envision a power drill small enough for one hand with a pistol grip. The 1916 Black & Decker power drill was vastly lighter, stronger, and required only one person to operate.

At first, Black & Decker only sold their power tools to other businesses. Eventually, they realized the consumer market was also interested in the convenience of power tools and built their business-to-consumer channel. By the early 1920s, the company was advertising power tools in popular newspapers and magazines.

Eventually, other companies created various tools. Over time, power tools became the norm.

In 1961, Black & Decker took the innovation one step further and invented cordless power tools. Like the original C&E Fein drill, the first cordless power tools were heavy and underpowered. However, even with these drawbacks, the benefits were obvious.

In 2005, Milwaukee Electric Tool Company released the first lithium-ion tools. These changed the industry, making cordless tools powerful, long-lasting, and easy-to-use.

Today, virtually every tool imaginable run on batteries. Drills, saws, sanders, chainsaws, and even lawnmowers utilize battery-driven electric motors.