By Buzz McClain
It’s not every year a university graduates a student who launched a $10 billion a year industry, or started a restaurant based on the invention of a machine for cooking pasta in under a minute, or became a rocket scientist in the 1950s and started an international rocketry association, or had his own television cooking show and school.
In this case, that’s one doctoral candidate.
Clearly, Mario Cardullo, this year’s oldest graduate at George Mason University, is not your typical graduate.
A conversation with Cardullo, who turns 78 on May 16—the day of his convocation, coincidentally—and Karen, his wife of 37 years, is a lively affair peppered with deliriously confounding recollections and far-ranging insights. For instance: “So I was giving a lecture to the Mexican health ministry on the use of four-handed dentistry”—and even he laughs at the absurdity—“and I became an investment banker with an office in Mexico City… I ended up with the rights to all the lumber coming out of southern Mexico.” He pauses. “This is what you get when you get me.”
He was employee No. 100 for Communications Satellite Corporation (the behemoth COMSAT) after serving as a senior propulsion specialist for Belcom (Bell Labs) on the Apollo manned moon mission. “I told my mother when I was 16 I wanted to put a man on the moon,” he says; this was in 1951, 18 years before he helped develop the lunar lander. Before that, he studied aeronautics, mechanical engineering, and thermodynamics at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (now NYU-Poly) because there was no such field as aerospace (he was later a trustee of the school). One of the more than 180 scholarly papers he’s written or cowritten detailed the use of mobile communications with satellites for saving people at sea; to date, it’s saved some 80,000 people. “It’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” he says.
But Cardullo’s best-known invention is the RFID-TAG, the radio-frequency identification transponder developed in 1969 as an electronic license plate and also known as EZPass. Today the transponders are ubiquitous, used to track everything from electronics and books to baggage and live ants; it’s a $10 billion a year business.
At the moment he has no fewer than 10 patents pending and three companies developing new products; in April he was awarded a patent for a plastic light bulb that uses less energy than an LED.
“Mario is a curious person,” says his wife Karen, who is a Mason master’s candidate in the history of decorative arts (she has two previous master’s, in music and business). “He embraces all of these ventures with thoroughness and gusto. Whatever realm he’s in, he’s there 100 percent. I think his passion is problem solving. That seems to be a pattern.”
Cardullo has been a college professor, with 30 years experience as an adjunct. He’s also written textbooks in addition to technology and business books that have been translated into several languages (China is big on his Technological Entrepreneurism: Enterprise Formation, Financing and Growth).
At the urging of his friend Lloyd J. Griffiths, former dean of Mason’s Volgenau School of Engineering, Cardullo decided to complete his education with a doctorate. Instead of building on his research in applying thermodynamics to discover why markets become unstable (which he’s already proven), Griffiths convinced him to do something with information technology. “So I said, why not?” Cardullo says.
His dissertation makes a case for using information and knowledge architectures to stabilize and manage global reserve currency.
“The dissertation is groundbreaking,” says University Professor Andrew P. Sage, the founding dean of the Volgenau School and the director of Cardullo’s dissertation. “It’s not the sort of work you find most doctoral students doing. He’s quite interested in applications; that was the motivation behind it.” Sage says the work is not just transformative, but transactional in its conclusions.
The teaming with Sage was key, Cardullo says of his time at Mason. Besides the doctoral degree, “Mason gave me an understanding of information technology that I did not have before. And it gave me Andy Sage as a mentor.
“It’s very hard if you’ve been a professor for 30 years to go on the other side of the podium—you have to have a different mindset. With any other mentor, it would be very easy to say, ‘I’ve been doing this longer than they have,’ but with Andy I ran into a man who is the most brilliant guy I’ve ever met.”