Inventor of bar code dies at 91 in New Jersey

New York:  The inventor of the bar code, that originated six decades ago and revolutionised product labelling, has died at the age of 91.

The product, originated on a beach when a mechanical-engineer-in-training named Norman Joseph Woodland with a transformative stroke of his fingers, yielding a set of literal lines in the sand, conceived the modern bar code.

Woodland died on Sunday, suffering from the effect of Alzheimer's disease and complications of his advanced age in his home in Edgewater, New Jersey, the New York Times reported.

His daughter, Susan Woodland, announced his death on Thursday.

Woodland was a graduate student when he and a classmate, Bernard Silver, 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, turned out to be ahead of its time, and the two men together made only $15,000 from it.

But the curious round symbol they devised would ultimately gave 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.

Woodland was born in Atlantic City on September 6, 1921.

As a Boy Scout he learned Morse code, the spark that would ignite his invention.

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," 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'."

That consequential pass was merely the beginning. "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 October 7, 1952, Woodland and Silver were awarded US 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."
Story First Published: December 14, 2012 19:25 IST

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