Published on 14 Dec 2012 Sections ,

Barcode inventor, who transformed commerce, dies

Norman Joseph Woodland, who invented the barcode in the 1950s, was years ahead of his time. But his groundbreaking innovation has enabled billions of transactions across the world.

It was, quite literally, a line in the sand. Norman Woodland was sitting out in the sun at his grandparents’ home in Miami Beach, trying to work out how product information could be easily captured.

As a former boy scout, he had learned the morse code, and began tapping out dots and dashes. His fingers trailed through the sand, forming lines instead. And that was it: his eureka moment.

“What I’m going to tell you sounds like a fairy tale”, Mr Woodward recalled decades later, telling Smithsonian magazine: “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.”

Mr Woodland, who had previously worked on the US military’s atomic bomb development team, known as the Project Manhattan, had started working on what was to become the barcode as a graduate student in Philadelphia.

I said Golly! Now I have four lines, and they could be wide lines and narrow lines instead of dots and dashes. Norman Woodland

A fellow student, Bernard Silver, had heard a supermarket boss asking for researchers to help make product information more efficient and readily available. The pair dropped out of their studies to pursue it, putting forward their patent in 1949 for a code shaped like a series of concentric circles.

They were mechanical engineers, rather than graphic designers, and only ever made $15,000 from their idea, when they sold the patent, which was years ahead of its time.

In fact, it was not until the 1970s when Woodward, then at IBM, helped to develop laser scanners to read the code more easily – making it commercially viable.

IBM changed the shape from a circle to a rectangle, so the ink would not bleed so much, and the rest is retail history. The first product to be sold with the new Universal Product Code, or UPC, was a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum, at a supermarket in Ohio, for 67 cents.

Nowadays the black and white design is everywhere: it has revolutionised retail around the world. It is there, in the incessent bleep of the checkout queue, it circles your wrist in hospital, it is emblazoned on the five billion products which are scanned and tracked every day.

Loose your luggage? A barcode will help you find it. It helps shops to track your purchases, online retailers to deliver your goods, identity checks to be verified: it is truly everywhere.

The inventor’s daughter, Susan Woodland, said her father had tried to get involved with designing the whole supermarket checkout, once his invention was in operation.

“He loved talking to the checkers at the supermarket, seeing what they thought of the barcode scanner… they always got such a kick out of him”, she said. “He was totally a perfectionist.”

A revolution in global commerce, and a very long way from that Florida beach, back in the 1940s.