N. Joseph Woodland, Inventor of the Bar Code, Dies at 91
It was born on a beach six decades ago, the product of a pressing need, an intellectual spark and the sweep of a young man’s fingers through the sand. The result adorns almost every product of contemporary life, including groceries, wayward luggage and, if you are a traditionalist, the newspaper you are holding.
Mr. Woodland was a graduate student when he and a classmate, 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, and the two men together made only $15,000 from it. $15,000 in 1952 is an inflation-adjusted $130,313.77 in 2013. Moreover, had he invested the money in the stock market in 1952, it would be worth $1.2 million. Truly fascinating. In this case it wasn't necessity that was the mother of invention, but only a scribble in the sand!
The barcode is such a useful invention. You can find it everywhere; from the grocery store, to blood banks, airplane luggage, and the files and records storage industry. Companies with millions of boxes of records and documents would not be able to function without the bar code. Bar codes are now essential to the records storage industry.
Had Mr. Woodland 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 invented in the form it was, if at all. Norman Joseph Woodland was born in Atlantic City on Sept. 6, 1921. As a Boy Scout he learned Morse code, the spark that would ignite his invention.
Mr. Woodland had his studies at the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia (it is now Drexel University), earning a bachelor’s degree in 1947. As an undergraduate, Mr. Woodland 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 the project 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 was going to come within spitting distance.