France Rode (November 20, 1934 – June 7, 2017) was a Slovenian engineer and inventor best known for his work on the HP-35 pocket calculator. He was one of the four lead engineers at Hewlett-Packard assigned to this project.
Rode also invented and created the first workable RFID products: workplace entry cards, for which he held several patents.
France was born in Nožice, Slovenia on November 20, 1934 to farmers father Jože and mother Pepca, born Prešeren, as the oldest of four children. His younger sister Agata and brothers Marko and Aleš completed the family. France started elementary school education in nearby Homec soon after the German occupation of Slovenia during the Second World War. A few months into the first school year the local Partisans burned the school building and the children were “saved” from formal schooling for the duration of the war. After the war, until the school in Homec was rebuilt, France’s class was meeting in the local church rectory or in a Gasthouse in the mornings and reported for “volunteer” work at the school construction site in the afternoon. Due to an accelerated learning program, France completed the fourth grade in Homec in 1947 and in the fall of the same year began attending high school in Kamnik. He skipped the fifth grade by studying and passing exams designed for the fifth grade during the summer months.
Education and academic interestsEdit
His academic interests at that time were in mathematics, physics and natural sciences. Whenever he had to study, France was excused from farm work. However, living on the farm allowed him no time for extracurricular activities for which he envied his schoolmates. Only occasionally he managed to join his peers after school. His fondest memories of such activities include participating in the staging of Hamlet, directed by Ciril Gostič, brother of operas singer Joze Gostic, France’s Godfather. His nostalgic memories also include skiing trips to Mala Planina and staying with his ski buddies in “Steletova koča.”
Living on the farm did have some side benefits. France learned hard work habits and discovered his inventive drive. In his uncle’s carpentry shop next door, he built his own toys and later tools that were otherwise too expensive to buy. He made the slide rule he used during all his academic years in Ljubljana.
France planned to study mathematics at Ljubljana University, but altered his interest to electrical engineering after he visited the University’s electrical engineering laboratories. He never regretted this switch. He felt that in this field he would be able to combine his interest in mathematics with some hands-on work.
France’s early contact with the world outside Slovenia (which was at that time part of Yugoslavia), were two summer jobs in Germany and a few school excursions. These contacts subsequently led him to visit companies in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany, which exposed him to advanced technologies of that era. They also triggered in him a desire to learn more about new places and people. Soon after his graduation in Ljubljana, he filed an application at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and in November 1960 he boarded the Slovenian ship Bohinj and was on his way to an unknown world.
France earned a master's degree in bio-medicine at Northwestern University in 1962. In September of the same year he joined Hewlett-Packard Company in Palo Alto, California where he worked off-and-on for over twenty years.
During his years at Hewlett-Packard (HP), France was able to participate in the remarkable development of new technologies in modern electronics. He was not just witnessing the birth and growth of Silicon Valley, which was then the center of world’s technological progress, but made significant contributions to it. When a new measuring instrument needed a calculating unit, France was given the task of designing it. HP was a strictly analog instrument producer before that time. From then on the whole instrument design methodology has changed, taking advantage of data processing within the instrument itself. France was a key player in this trend.
Pioneering work on pocket calculatorEdit
France’s subsequent contribution was just as vital for HP as the former and it consisted of the first integrated circuit designed within the company. The engineers and the management were anxiously awaiting the arrival of the processed chip, which arose from France’s cutting and pasting of its layout. Being armed with two most important technologies that catapulted Silicon Valley, France was the obvious choice for carrying the intricate load of designing the miniature processor for HP-35, the first scientific pocket calculator. While he did not get the recognition of having designed the first microprocessor in the world, France’s HP-35 calculating unit had all the characteristics associated with a microprocessor. It had a complete instruction set for controlling its arithmetic units. The algorithms for trigonometric and logarithmic algorithms took advantage of this instruction set which has put the slide rule out of business. But it also opened the door to a new genre of pocket calculators. Being familiar with his instruction set France saw the opportunity to give the business community their own pocket calculator. In consultation with business experts France designed algorithms that are still in use to this day in the commercial world.
Using the same hardware as the HP-35, France designed the HP-80 business calculator, that replaced reams of tables used to compute mortgages, returns on investments and other business transactions with a dedicated keyboard. France also foresaw the need for a laptop style computer and has proposed and then led to completion the development of the Briefcase Computer. This was apparently ahead of its time and had to await the evolution through the desktop computer stage.
Hewlett-Packard oscilloscopes had a bad name in the engineering community around the world and the top management asked the central Research &Development Laboratory to do something about it. A new promising concept called for an integrated processor and France was again called into action. For him this was such an easy task that he found time to enrich the final prototype named “Smart Scope” with many vital ideas, which later became topics of his doctoral dissertation in 1975.
France’s entrepreneurial spirit led him in 1979 to establish the company Sielox Inc., which was to develop electronic locks and security devices based on one of his patents. In the same pursuit he also established cooperative relationship with Ljubljana University and with the Slovenian microelectronics firm ISKRA for purposes of manufacturing the required microchips. In 1986 Sielox was acquired by Checkpoint Systems and France became their R&D vice president. But his pursuit of new adventures led him in 1990 to Trimble Navigation, where he participated in efforts to embed the new satellite based navigation GPS into airplanes and with additional equipment enable them for blind landing. During the last two years at Trimble Navigation France was heavily involved with attempts to redesign and then integrate the GPS receiver into only two chips. This effort led him to join his two coworkers who established a new company under the name eRide Inc. Their goal was to design novel GPS receivers, which would make it possible to navigate under diverse condition such as inside the buildings or in other reflective environments but primarily inside a wristwatch. While the project proved the concept it has missed the window of opportunity to competition.
Although there are a number of mementos in his office for the work he has done, he considers his patents his best awards. His contribution to the development of HP-35, the first handheld scientific calculator, was publicly honored as part of the IEEE Milestone in Electrical Engineering and Computing celebration held at Hewlett Packard, Palo Alto in April 2009. Photos of the event.
- 4,001,569 General purpose calculator having selective data storage, data conversion, and time-keeping capabilities
- 4,035,627 Scientific calculator
- 4,047,012 General purpose calculator having factorial capability
- 4,059,750 General purpose calculator having selective data storage, data conversion and time-keeping capabilities
- 3,955,074 General purpose calculator having keys with more than one function assigned thereto
- 3,946,218 General purpose calculator with capability for performing yield-to-maturity of a bond calculation
- 3,863,060 General Purpose Calculator with Capability for Performing Interdisciplinary Business Calculations
RFID-based Security products, Sielox Systems, Inc
- 4,727,369 Electronic lock and key system