• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Norman Joseph Woodland

Co-inventor of the bar code;

Born: September 6, 1921; Died: December 9, 2012.

Norman Joseph Woodland, who has died aged 91, was the co-inventor of the bar code that is now used on virtually every product in every store. The first time it was used was in 1974 on a 67-cent packet of Wrigley's chewing gum at a supermarket in Ohio. Nearly 40 years later, around five billion products worldwide are scanned and tracked using the system every day.

Mr Woodland was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the elder of two boys. His studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia were interrupted by the Second World War, during which he worked on the Manhattan Project, the US military's atomic bomb development team.

After the war, he returned to Drexel and it was here that the seed of the bar code idea was sown. Mr Woodland's friend Bernard 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.

Having already earned a mechanical engineering degree, Mr 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.

The only code Mr Woodland knew was the Morse Code he had learned in the Boy Scouts. 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 his moment of inspiration.

"I left three or four furrows in the sand," he said. "I said, 'Wow, I could have wide lines and narrow lines.' That was the invention. It sounds too simple, doesn't it?"

Mr Woodland and Mr Silver submitted their patent in 1949 for a code patterned on concentric circles that looked like a bull's eye but the problem was that the technology simply did not then exist to exploit the idea. In 1951, Mr Woodland joined IBM 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.

In the early 1970s, he moved to Raleigh to join a team at IBM's Research Triangle Park facility. The team developed a bar code-reading laser scanner system in response to demand from grocers' desires to automate and speed checkout while also cutting handling and inventory management costs. IBM promoted a rectangular barcode that led to a standard for universal product code technology.

In 1992, Mr Woodland and Microsoft founder Bill Gates were among those honoured at the White House for their achievements to technology. Silver died in 1963.

Mr Woodland is survived by his wife Jacqueline and their two daughters.

Contextual targeting label: 
Block list

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

131604