The bar code is so essential to our everyday lives that it’s easy to forget it was the brainchild of two men—and neither was a designer. One of them, Norman Joseph Woodland, died on Sunday at 91.
Woodland and his co-inventor, Bernard Silver, were engineering students in Philadelphia when “Mr. 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,” according to the Associated Press. Woodland dropped out of graduate school to work on the bar-code idea. He knew Morse code and, by happenstance, realized that instead of dots and dashes he could use thick and thin bars. In 1949 he and Silver developed a code patterned on concentric circles that looked like a bull’s eye.
Woodland joined IBM in 1951, “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, Mr. Woodland moved to Raleigh to join a team at IBM’s Research Triangle Park, N.C., 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.”
The first product sold using a UPC scan was a 67-cent package of Wrigley’s chewing gum at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio, in June 1974.