How Boy Scout lore and a visit to the beach led to the bar code




6-9-1921 - 9-12-2012

IT WAS born on a beach six decades ago, the product of a pressing need, an intellectual spark and the sweep of a young man's fingers through the sand.

The man on the beach that day was a mechanical-engineer-in-training named Joseph Woodland. With that stroke of his fingers - yielding a set of literal lines in the sand - Woodland, who has died at 91, conceived the modern bar code.

As graduate students, 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.

Woodland, who was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, spent World War II on the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. After the war, he earned a bachelor's degree at the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia in 1947.

The following year he was studying for a master's degree at Drexel when a local supermarket executive visited the campus and implored a dean to develop an efficient means of encoding product data.

Woodland realised that a code was needed to represent information visually. The only code he knew was Morse code, which he had learnt in the Boy Scouts. What would happen, he wondered one day, if Morse code, with its elegant simplicity and limitless combinatorial potential, were adapted graphically? Woodland, who was staying at his grandparents' home in Miami Beach, began trailing his fingers idly through the sand.

"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."'

Woodland and Silver favoured a circular pattern for its omnidirectionality: a checkout clerk, they reasoned, could scan a product without regard for its orientation. On October 7, 1952, they were awarded US patent 2,612,994 for their invention.

But their 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 for $US15,000 - all they ever made from their invention.

By the time the patent expired at the end of the 1960s, Woodland was on the staff of IBM, 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 IBM colleague, George Laurer, designed the familiar black-and-white rectangle, based on the Woodland-Silver model and drawing on Woodland's considerable input.

Woodland is survived by his wife, Jacqueline, two daughters and a granddaughter.

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