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Norman Joseph Woodland: His bar code changed the world

Information processors around the world owe a tribute to the man who hatched the idea for the product codes scanned at their checkout terminals. Norman Joseph Woodland, co-inventor of the bar code, died on Dec. 9 at the age of 91. 2012 is the 60th anniversary of the patent for the bar code. How his most famous invention came about is an interesting story.*

Woodland studied mechanical engineering at what is now Drexel University in Philadelphia. He was such a good student that the government drafted him into World War II military service to work on the Manhattan Project (the code name for the project to develop the world’s first atomic bomb). After the war, he finished his undergraduate degree and began graduate work at Drexel. That’s where he became very good friends with Bernard Silver, an electrical engineering graduate student.

The story goes, one day in 1948, Silver overheard a grocer talking to the dean of engineering at Drexel.** The grocer wondered if some students could figure out an efficient way to collect data when customers paid for their purchases. The dean was unimpressed, but Silver discussed it with Woodland, and the two thought about it on and off.

Then, in 1949, Woodland had what has to be a great example of an epiphany. Woodland had been a Boy Scout and had learned Morse code. One day at a beach, he was doodling in the sand making Morse code dots and dashes. He lengthened them, then he made some thicker and some thinner. Then, BINGO! There was all the product information in Morse code, using thick and thin parallel lines instead of dots and dashes.

Woodland hurried back to tell Silver, and the two men worked on the code and soon perfected the concept. By 1951, they both needed jobs. Silver started by teaching physics at Drexel and later became vice president of Electro Nite. Woodland was hired by IBM, where he spent most of his career. They continued with the bar code project, and in 1952 their patent was approved.

Still, there was one major detail. How could one read the information on the codes efficiently, since code-reading devices were still almost two decades away from production? Silver and Woodland must have had some concept for code readers because their first model bar code was circles, very much like a target pattern. The idea was to make it readable from any angle.

Woodland and Silver tried to sell the patent to IBM, but Big Blue wasn’t interested. However, Philco offered $15,000. That’s all the two ever made off their now ubiquitous patent.

Philco eventually sold the patent to RCA, where work on the device continued. After the patent expired, in 1969, RCA sought the interest of the National Retail Grocers Association in developing a uniform grocery product code, the forerunner to today’s uniform product code, or UPC. They apparently did this without any knowledge of the above-mentioned conversation between Drexel’s shortsighted engineering dean and a very farsighted businessman who ran some grocery stores. Meanwhile, Silver developed acute leukemia and died just shy of his 39th birthday, in 1963.

Eventually, in 1969, RCA involved the National Association of Food Chains in the barcode idea. The US Supermarket Ad Hoc Committee on a Uniform Grocery Product Code was formed, and the group included RCA’s sometimes rival IBM. When Woodland found out, he explained the history. IBM immediately transferred him to their Research Triangle Park facility in North Carolina. There he played a major role in finishing what he helped start. The first commercial bar code was used in 1974.***

Sometimes people become disgusted with bar codes and the “everything has to have a number” mentality. Remember, barcodes are one of the major cost-saving inventions of the 20th century. Yes, they reduce the need for labor. They also make users so much more cost-efficient that far more opportunities for jobs are created by the savings. Barcodes increase the productivity of employees, thus making higher wages affordable.

Wal-Mart may be today’s ultimate user of barcodes. Every time merchandise is scanned at any Wal-Mart checkout counter anywhere in the world, that store’s computer automatically notifies Wal-Mart’s home office in Bentonville, Ark. The home office notifies the supplier that a certain number are needed by a certain date. The ability to respond to such requests is part of what Walmart looks for in its supply chain.

Another application is implanting identification chips that can be read through the skin. This can help identify lost pets and include their medical histories. There are already efforts to implant medical histories in humans. That drive for efficiency may be too much like Big Brother.

In 2011, Woodland and Silver each were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, located in Akron, Ohio. ****

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*Sources are various obituaries and articles, three of which are: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Joseph_Woodland; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Silver; and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barcode

** “Supermarkets” were pretty much unheard of in those days. People did their food shopping at “grocery stores.”

*** For trivia fans, NCR (nee’ National Cash Register), headquartered in Dayton, was also an obvious choice to be included in the project. NCR convinced Marsh’s, located in nearby Troy, Ohio, to try this new system. So, on June 26, 1974, a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum was scanned by clerk Sharon Buchanan at 8:01 a.m. The receipt, the gum, etc. are all on display at the Smithsonian.

**** For interested readers, there is a lot more information on how barcodes were developed and on other persons working concurrently with but totally independently from Woodland and Silver. For example, railways experimented with strips of colored tape on the outside of railroad cars to track each railroad car's movement and location.