Obituary: N. Joseph Woodland created modern bar code

  • Article by: MARGALIT FOX
  • New York Times
  • December 13, 2012 - 10:36 PM

N. Joseph Woodland, who six decades ago drew a set of lines in the sand and in the process conceived the modern bar code, died Sunday at his home in Edgewater, N.J. He was 91.

His daughter Susan Woodland confirmed the death.

A retired mechanical engineer, Woodland was a graduate student when he and a classmate, Bernard Silver, created a technology -- based on a printed series of wide and narrow striations -- that encoded consumer-product information for optical scanning. Their idea, developed in the late 1940s and patented 60 years ago this fall, turned out to be ahead of its time. It would give rise to the universal product code, or UPC, which now adorns tens of millions of different items, scanned in retail establishments worldwide at the rate of more than 5 billion a day.

The bar code would never have developed as it did without a chain of events: had he not been a Boy Scout, had he not logged hours on the beach and had his father not been quite so afraid of organized crime, the code would very likely not have been.

Norman Joseph Woodland was born in Atlantic City, N.J., on Sept. 6, 1921. As a Boy Scout he learned Morse code, the spark that would ignite his invention. After spending World War II on the Manhattan Project, he resumed his studies at the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia, earning a bachelor's degree in 1947.

As an undergraduate, he perfected a system for delivering elevator music efficiently. His system, which recorded 15 simultaneous audio tracks on 35-millimeter film stock, was less cumbersome than existing methods, which relied on LPs and reel-to-reel tapes. He planned to pursue it commercially, but his father, who had come of age in "Boardwalk Empire"-era Atlantic City, forbade it: elevator music, he said, was controlled by the mob, and no son of his would take part.

The younger Woodland returned to Drexel for a master's. In 1948, a supermarket executive visited campus, where he implored a dean to develop an efficient means of encoding product data. Silver, a fellow graduate student, was intrigued. He conscripted Woodland, who holed up at his grandparents' home in Miami Beach in the winter of 1948-49 thinking about it. To represent information visually, he realized, he would need a code. The only code he knew was the one he had learned in the Boy Scouts.

What would happen, he wondered, if Morse code were adapted graphically? He began trailing his fingers idly through the sand. "I said: 'Golly! Now I have four lines, and they could be wide lines and narrow lines instead of dots and dashes,'" he said in 1999. Then he swept his fingers into a circle -- a pattern he favored because a clerk, he reasoned, could scan a product without regard for its orientation. Woodland and Silver eventually sold their patent to Philco for $15,000 -- all they ever made from their invention.

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