Bar Code Co-Inventor N.J. Woodland Dies At 91

Norman Joseph Woodland, one of the inventors of the bar code, died from Alzheimer’s related complications at the age of 91.

He passed away on Sunday but his death in Edgewater, New Jersey, was announced today by his daughter.

As grad students, Woodland and Bernard Silver (who died in 1963) conceived of the basic concept of the bar code when they overheard a supermarket executive asking a dean at Drexel University if there was a way to capture product information automatically at checkout. From there, Woodland devoted himself to coming with a practical solution to inventory control.

According The Wall Street Journal, Morse code was the inspiration for the bar code:

“The only code Mr. Woodland knew was the Morse Code he had learned in the Boy Scouts, his daughter said. 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 a moment of inspiration. He said, ‘instead of dots and dashes I can have thick and thin bars,’ Susan Woodland said.”

Woodland and Silver obtained a patent in 1952, but the idea didn’t become commercially feasible until 20 years later when lasers came on the scene. In the 1970s, while working for IBM, Woodland worked on a team that developed a bar code reader for supermarkets. And the rest is history, with IBM promoting “a rectangular bar code that led to a standard for universal-product-code technology.”

About five billion UPC bar-coded products are scanned and tracked each day according to the WSJ.

Can you think of another invention that has streamlined day-to-day commerce to the extent of Mr. Woodland’s invention?