N. Joseph Woodland died on Sunday
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 and wayward luggage. The man on the beach that day was a mechanical engineer-in-training named N. Joseph Woodland. With that transformative stroke of his fingers yielding a set of literal lines in the sand, Woodland, who died Sunday at 91, conceived the modern bar code.
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.
Woodland studied at the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia (it is now Drexel University), earning a bachelor's degree in 1947.
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 Bernard Silver, a fellow graduate student who overheard their conversation, was intrigued. He conscripted Woodland. An early idea of theirs, which involved printing product information in fluorescent ink and reading it with ultraviolet light, proved unworkable.
But Woodland 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, Woodland wondered one day, if Morse code were adapted graphically?
''What I'm going to tell you sounds like a fairy tale," 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. "Only seconds later," Woodland continued, "I took my four fingers they were still in the sand and I swept them around into a full circle."
Woodland favoured the circular pattern for its omnidirectionality: a checkout clerk, he reasoned, could scan a product without regard for its orientation.
On Oct. 7, 1952, Woodland and Silver were awarded U.S. patent 2,612,994 for their invention a variegated bull's-eye of wide and narrow bands on which they had bestowed the unromantic name "Classifying Apparatus and Method."
But that method was expensive and unwieldy, and it languished for years. The two men eventually sold their patent to Philco for $15,000 all they ever made from their invention.
Over time, laser scanning technology and the advent of the microprocessor made the bar code viable. In the early 1970s, an IBM employee, George J. Laurer, designed the familiar black-and-white rectangle, based on the Woodland-Silver model and drawing on Woodland's considerable input.
Thanks to Alan Haberman, a supermarket executive who helped popularize the rectangular bar code , it was adopted as the industry standard in 1973. Today, in retail establishments worldwide, bar codes are scanned at the rate of more than 5 billion a day. They keep track of books in libraries, patients in hospitals and nearly anything else. All because a bright young man, his mind ablaze with dots and dashes, one day raked his fingers through the sand.— New York Times News Service