Sunday, February 24, 2013

N. Joseph Woodland, Inventor of the Bar Code, Dies at 91
We take so much for granted now and expect many things as normal that we didn’t have not too long ago. Do you even remember the time you used to go to the grocery store and the cashier had to type in the price of each item you purchased? You also had to hope that they knew the price or that someone else bothered to put a little sticker on your can of soup to help everyone out with the price. Well, those days are long gone and have been replaced with a bar code system.
Nowadays even your kids can be bar coded and they can scan your phone when you find a bar code for a discount. Don’t you think we should even know who made our lives so easy to function? I think some recognition should be given to those unknown inventors that have made our lives so very easy; especially those cashiers who simply scan the bar codes over a red light at the supermarket of my can of soup and neither one of us really knows how much it cost.

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.
The man on the beach that day was a mechanical-engineer-in-training named N. Joseph Woodland. With that trans formative stroke of his fingers — yielding a set of literal lines in the sand — Mr. Woodland, who died recently at 91, conceived the modern bar code.
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.
The curious round symbol they devised would ultimately give rise to the universal product code, or U.P.C., as the staggeringly prevalent rectangular bar code (it graces tens of millions of different items) is officially known.
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.
The younger Mr. Woodland returned to Drexel for a master’s degree. In 1948, a local supermarket executive visited the campus, where he implored a dean to develop an efficient means of encoding product data. The dean demurred, but Mr. Silver, a fellow graduate student who overheard their conversation, was intrigued. He conscripted Mr. Woodland.
An early idea of theirs, which involved printing product information in fluorescent ink and reading it with ultraviolet light, proved unworkable. But Mr. Woodland, convinced that a solution was close at hand, quit graduate school to devote himself to the problem. He holed up at his grandparents’ home in Miami Beach, where he spent the winter of 1948-49 in a chair in the sand, thinking.
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, Mr. Woodland wondered one day, if Morse code, with its elegant simplicity and limitless combinatorial potential, were adapted graphically? He began trailing his fingers idly through the sand.
“What I’m going to tell you sounds like a fairy tale,” Mr. Woodland told Smithsonian magazine in 1999. “I poked my four fingers into the sand and for whatever reason — I didn’t know — I pulled my hand toward me and drew four lines. I said: ‘Golly! Now I have four lines, and they could be wide lines and narrow lines instead of dots and dashes.’ ”
One of the first uses of bar code was in sorting rail cars. Rail cars had bar codes affixed to them long before they ever appeared on grocery products. N. Joseph Woodland's original disc codes look like trees rings, which encode climate data and much else. So, someone in forestry, without the name Woodland, might equally have hit on this invention.

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