January 2, 2013

A line in the sand ... and the rest is history

The strange tale of how Norman Joseph Woodland came up with the idea for the bar code.

By DC Velocity Staff

Most people know that the first commercial use of bar codes dates back to the mid-1960s. But few are aware that the bar-code concept dates back to the late 1940s, that it was inspired by Morse code, and that its inventor's "eureka moment" occurred while he was hanging out on a Florida beach.

These and other little-known facts about the now-ubiquitous product identifier have been in the news following the death in early December of Norman Joseph Woodland, the mechanical engineer who first envisioned the bar code. He was 91.

In 1948, Woodland and Bernard Silver, a classmate at Drexel Institute of Technology (now Drexel University), were trying to develop a way to encode product data for the grocery industry. When their original idea didn't pan out, Woodland quit grad school to think about other approaches. While pondering the problem sitting on a beach in Miami, he decided that some sort of visual code would be the best way to represent product information. He had learned Morse code as a Boy Scout and surmised that a graphic version of the dots and dashes might work.

At that moment, Woodland recounted decades later, he drew lines in the sand with his fingers. Instead of dots and dashes, he thought, the width of the lines could convey information. Almost immediately afterward, he redrew the lines in a bull's-eye pattern. Woodland and Silver patented a code based on that design in 1952, but it never gained traction and they eventually sold the patent for just $15,000.

Over the years, technological advances made bar coding feasible and more cost-effective. Woodland, meanwhile, went to work at IBM, and in the early 1970s, a coworker there developed the familiar rectangular bar code.

Woodland received the National Medal of Technology in 1992 and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2011.

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