December 13, 2012

N. Joseph Woodland, Inventor of the Bar Code, Dies at 91 (MARGALIT FOX, 12/13/12, NY Times)

Had Mr. Woodland not been a Boy Scout, had he not logged hours on the beach and had his father not been quite so afraid of organized crime, the code would very likely not have been invented in the form it was, if at all. [...]

He holed up at his grandparents' home in Miami Beach, where he spent the winter of 1948-49 in a chair in the sand, thinking.

To represent information visually, he realized, he would need a code. The only code he knew was the one he had learned in the Boy Scouts.

What would happen, Mr. 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," Mr. 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 transformative sweep was merely the beginning. "Only seconds later," Mr. Woodland continued, "I took my four fingers -- they were still in the sand -- and I swept them around into a full circle."

Mr. Woodland favored the circular pattern for its omnidirectionality: a checkout clerk, he reasoned, could scan a product without regard for its orientation.

On Oct. 7, 1952, Mr. Woodland and Mr. Silver were awarded United States 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."

But that method, which depended on an immense scanner equipped with a 500-watt light, was expensive and unwieldy, and it languished for years.

The two men eventually sold their patent to Philco for $15,000 -- all they ever made from their invention.

By the time the patent expired at the end of the 1960s, Mr. Woodland was on the staff of I.B.M., where he worked from 1951 until his retirement in 1987.

Over time, laser scanning technology and the advent of the microprocessor made the bar code viable. In the early 1970s, an I.B.M. colleague, George J. Laurer, designed the familiar black-and-white rectangle, based on the Woodland-Silver model and drawing on Mr. Woodland's considerable input.

Thanks largely to the work of Alan Haberman, a supermarket executive who helped select and popularize the rectangular bar code and who died in 2011, it was adopted as the industry standard in 1973.


Posted by at December 13, 2012 3:44 PM
  
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