From the Associated Press:
Norman Joseph Woodland, the co-inventor of the bar code that labels nearly every product in stores and has boosted productivity in almost every sector of commerce world-wide, has died. He was 91….
Woodland and Bernard Silver were students at what is now called Drexel University in Philadelphia when Silver overheard a grocery-store executive asking an engineering school dean to channel students into research on how product information could be captured at checkout, Susan Woodland said.
Woodland notably had worked on the Manhattan Project, the U.S. military’s atomic bomb development team. And having already earned a mechanical engineering degree, Woodland dropped out of graduate school to work on the bar code idea. He stole away to spend time with his grandfather in Miami to focus on developing a code that could symbolically capture details about an item, Susan Woodland.
The only code Woodland knew was the Morse Code he’d learned in the Boy Scouts, his daughter said. One day, he drew Morse dots and dashes as he sat on the beach and absent-mindedly left his fingers in the sand where they traced a series of parallel lines.
“It was a moment of inspiration. He said, ‘instead of dots and dashes I can have thick and thin bars,'” Susan Woodland said.
Woodland and Silver submitted their patent in 1949 for a code patterned on concentric circles that looked like a bull’s eye. The patent was issued in 1952, 60 years ago this fall. Silver died in 1963.
Woodland joined IBM in 1951 hoping to develop the bar code, but the technology wasn’t accepted for more than two decades until lasers made it possible to read the code readily, the technology company said. In the early 1970s, Woodland moved to Raleigh to join a team at IBM’s Research Triangle Park, N.C., facility.
From IBM’s Centennial celebration:
N. Joseph Woodland, later an IBMer but then working at Drexel Institute of Technology, applied for the first patent on bar code technology on October 20, 1949, and along with Bernard Silver, received the patent on October 7, 1952. And there it sat for more than two decades. In those days there was no way to read the codes, until the laser became a practical tool. About 1970 at IBM Research Triangle Park, George Laurer went to work on how to scan labels and to develop a digitally readable code. Soon a team formed to address the issue, including Woodland.
Stephen A . Brown in Revolution at the Checkout Counter: The Explosion of the Bar Code: “The opening of the March store [on June 26, 1974, in Troy, Ohio, where a Universal Product Code (UPC) label was used to ring up purchases at a supermarket for the first time] is very important from a historical perspective. By no means, however, did it signify the success of the U.P.C. Several years would pass before it became obvious that scanning would become widespread. In the interim, a number of doubters publicly proclaimed the failure of the U.P.C… By 1976, Business Week was eulogizing ‘The Supermarket Scanner that Failed.'”
By the early 2000s, bar code technologies had become a $17 billion business, scanned billions of times each day. Today, according to GS1, the global UPC standard-setting body, “the standards behind the barcode have grown into the global GS1 System, used by more than one million companies doing business in 150 countries across more than 20 industries.”
Update: Wired on Woodland