For several years now, the most essential (trans)actions of our daily lives have been inconceivable without a smart card that performs these operations. In its rectangular casing with perfect proportions, the electronic ID card, the inseparable credit (or debit) card, and even some health insurance and phone cards, to name a few, have made 8.5 x 5.3 centimetres the new measurements most desired by consumer society.
This ABGstories article is dedicated to the minds responsible for making us whip out more cards than a referee in a Champions League final match.
The miraculous microchip
A smart card is a card with an integrated circuit that is uniquely configured to each holder. As consumers, it allows us to perform functions such as: verifying our identity with absolute security, storing and transporting data related to our user profile, providing us with a secure wallet and, in general, giving us secure access to various applications in all kinds of areas (official institutions, banking, shops, etc.) which enable us to carry out a wide variety of operations.
Two types of smart cards exist: memory cards, which have a simple circuit and read-write memory (common in prepaid phone and health insurance cards); and microprocessor cards, which can be programmed more freely and whose data can be read or written thanks to an identifier, and which allow a wide range of functions to be executed with a higher level of security.
Operations in both of these categories do not require batteries since the power they use is supplied by the readers of the cards themselves.
Now that we know what the invention consists of, let’s see who created it.
The clever triangle
The chip card is the brainchild of three inventors: Egyptian-born Frenchman Roland Moreno, Japanese Kunitaka Arimura, and German Jurgen Dethloff. Obviously, the nation of each contributor claims sole custody of this being, but since our sector is in favour of innovation, we will fairly treat the tripartite as a whole.
The French side
In France, Roland Moreno is a national treasure despite the little global relevance that his name has achieved. The Gauls consider him their national “nutty professor”, perhaps because of his multifaceted talent since in addition to being an inventor, he was also a journalist, actor, writer and humourist.
In 1972, at just 27 years old, he founded his own company: Innovatron. The company was home to his many creations, some of the most ground-breaking being software capable of creating new words from random combinations of specific words from the dictionary; or the Matapof, a machine to play the “Heads or tails” game. Innovatron was the birthplace of the contraption that ensured Moreno’s place in the Olympus of inventiveness: the smart card.
Obsessed with the idea of transporting data and carrying out transactions in a simple and secure way, the Frenchman ended up creating a microchip whose features were included in his first patent application (FR 2266222), filed in 1974.
The patent was granted in 1975, but it was not until well into the 1980’s that Roland Moreno’s invention became a true revolution. Due to their high production cost compared to magnetic stripe cards, smart cards went unnoticed until 1983. That year, France Télécom launched the market’s first prepaid phone cards with the integrated chip. This new format was well received by the public and caught the attention of banks, which saw a golden opportunity to streamline commercial transactions.
The German and Japanese angles
Although Moreno did not achieve great international fame, this did not prevent the euphoria that originated around his invention from crossing borders. Echoes of the French microchip card reached Germany and Japan. On hearing the news, both countries dusted off trunks of memories to dispute the origins of the Frenchman’s feat.
The Japanese counterattacked, highlighting the figure of Kunitaka Arimura as the true pioneer. They attribute the concept of the smart card and the first patent filed in this regard to him, which, according to reports, dates back to 1970 and was limited to Japanese territory. Despite the lack of documents in the main patent databases that confirm this, history has recognised Arimura’s contribution to this device.
Jürgen Dethloff is the third name included in this clever triangle. His leading role emerged around 1968 when, together with Helmut Göttrup, he applied for a patent for his “Identifier-Identification Switch” (AT 287366B), which had to wait until 1982 to be granted.
From 1976 to 1977, and now on his own, Dethloff would file another three key patent applications for the smart card ecosystem: a device for performing operations with at least one identifier and a microprocessor device/card (DE 2760486C2); a method for configuring a transport protection identifier/code (DE 2760487C2); and a device for processing banking operations (DE 2760485A).
Ego and nationality struggles aside, as we have seen in other ABGstories, it is clear that three is a crowd is not counterproductive in the field of IP. The best approach is to always fairly acknowledge all the parties involved and remember that without good ideas our daily life would never progress as it should.
Note: ABG IP encourages the responsible use of credit cards.
Thanks to my colleagues Fernando Prieto, Juan Antonio Bonache and Inés García for their contributions to this text.