Something that adorns virtually every product we buy today was the result of chance finger drawings on a beach over six decades ago. The man on the beach that fateful day was a young engineer in training named Joe Woodland. Fortunately, the fact that he had learned Morse Code when he was a young Boy Scout would turn out to be the inspiration for his new concept.
In 1948, a local supermarket manager approached one of the deans at Drexel University. The manager wanted the dean to come up with a clever method of encoding product data. While the dean was not terribly interested, a nearby student, Bernard Silver, overheard the conversation and was intrigued.
He mentioned what he had heard to fellow student Joe Woodland and together, they worked on developing a product code system. Their first idea involved printing product information in fluorescent ink and then reading it with ultraviolet light; but that scheme ultimately proved not to be practical. However, because he believed a solution could be found, Woodland quit graduate school so he could devote fulltime effort to the project. He spent the winter of 1948-49 at his grandparent’s home in Miami Beach. He was convinced the answer lay in developing a succinct code, but the only code he had ever been exposed to was the one that he had learned in the Boy Scouts. One day, as he sat on the beach, he wondered if Morse Code could somehow be modified into a graphical form. As he pondered the problem, he stuck four fingers into the sand and drew them back. After looking over what his fingers had produced, he had a sudden bolt of inspiration. As he would relate years later - “Now I have four lines. Instead of dots and dashes, the width of the lines could represent coded information.” Flush with excitement, Woodland reformed his fours lines into a circular pattern, figuring it would be easier to scan in the code regardless of its orientation.
In October of 1952, he and Silver received a patent for their invention with the rather awkward name “Classifying Apparatus and Method”.
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However clever their invention seemed to be, it would turn out to be unwieldy in practice as it required a scanner equipped with a large and expensive 500-watt light. As with many inventions, theirs was ahead of its time. With little market success, the two eventually sold their patent to Philco, receiving the only money they would ever make on their invention - $15,000. Philco in turn sold it to RCA, which attempted to develop commercial applications until the patent expired in 1969. At that time, Woodland was employed as an engineer at IBM.
As technology gradually improved over time, the scanning of bar codes became more practical. In the early 1970s, a fellow IBMer by the name of George Laurer, designed the now universal black-and-white rectangle, based on the Woodland-Silver scheme along with considerable input from Woodland. The new design was adapted as an industry standard in 1973 and renamed Universal Product Code. The first item scanned was a packet of chewing gum in an Ohio supermarket in 1974.
In 1992, Mr. Woodland received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2011.