At a Florida beach house in the winter of 1948-49, a 27-year old grad school dropout drew lines in the sand and invented the barcode.
Norman Joseph Woodland, who died at the age of 91 in Edgewater, New Jersey on Dec. 8, his daughter told the Associated Press, has been credited along with Bernard Silver (1924-63) with inventing the series of machine-readable stripes that revolutionized retail and countless other industries. Bar codes now appear on billions of supermarket items, hospital utensils and military equipment — to name a few — around the world. About five billion barcodes are swiped a day, in 150 countries, according to the U.S. branch of the international barcode provider GS1.
Woodland was born in Atlantic City, N.J. and grew up during prohibition — the height of political boss Enoch “Nucky” Johnson’s power, as fictionalized in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. During the Second World War he worked on the secretive the Manhattan Project, the military program which led to the development of the atomic bomb. While studying at what is now Drexel University, his friend Silver overheard a conversation in which a supermarket executive implored a university dean to develop a technology to archive product information, according to the New York Times.
(PHOTOS: Behind the Scenes of Boardwalk Empire)
Silver recruited Woodland and both left university to find a solution to the problem. In 1948 Woodland retreated to his grandparents’ home in Miami Beach, Florida for the winter. He tried to come up with a coding system inspired by the Morse Code he learned as a boy scout.
In 1999, he told Smithsonian magazine (according to the New York Times) how he came up with the barcode:
What I’m going to tell you sounds like a fairy tale. 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.”
He and Silver filed a patent in 1949, naming the invention “Classifying Apparatus and Method.” The two, unable to come up with a practical reading device, eventually sold their patent, obtained in 1952, for $15,000.
From 1951 to his retirement in 1987, Woodland worked at I.B.M., the company that would eventually develop the now omnipresent barcode in the ’70s. At 8:01 a.m. on June 26, 1974, a cashier scanner beeped at a Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio, marking the first time a barcode was used. It was on a 10-pack Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum, which is still on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.
In 1992, Woodland, was awarded the National Medal for Technology and Innovation, the highest U.S. honor for technological achievement, by President George H.W. Bush.