Norman Joseph Woodland, who died on Sunday at the age of 91, invented something that was used five billion times today alone. In fact, you probably have one (or lots) within arm's reach right now: the bar code.
The invention of the barcode is related to Woodland's youthful affinity for the beach. Born in Atlantic City in 1921, he grew up in New Jersey. Woodland had a fateful connection with both the beach and Morse code, both of which were nurtured by his time in the Boy Scouts.
His university studies were interrupted by WWII, in which he served as a Technical Assistant on the Manhattan Project. After the war, he finished his Bachelor's and stayed on at his alma mater Drexel University to study for a Master's. The general idea for the bar code was sparked when a supermarket executive visited Drexel, expressing a desire to categorize and code the various products in his stores. Bernard Silver, another Drexel student, sensed an opportunity at hand and recruited Woodland to solve the problem.
After some failed trials involving ultraviolet light and fluorescent ink, Woodland dropped out of school to focus on the project. He moved to Miami Beach, and set about devising a solution. It was on South Florida's white sands that it struck him. Speaking with Smithsonian Magazine in 1999 he detailed the moment:
"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.' "Only seconds later, I took my four fingers — they were still in the sand — and I swept them around into a full circle."
The original design for the bar code was for a circle, rather than the rectangle we are so familiar with. Woodland and Silver thought that a circular code would allow it to be read from any angle. A shame it didn't work out that way, as anyone who has ever bought anything can well imagine. While the pair had solved the problem of a coding system, they struggled to develop a reader for the bar codes. The two sold the patent for their "Classifying Apparatus and Method" for $15,000, the pair's only profit from the invention.
Woodland then took on a job at IBM where he would work his entire career. When laser scanning technology made a code reading device commercially feasible, Woodland worked on the IBM team that delivered the modern UPC. Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum was the first product to ever be sold with a UPC, in 1974.
For his work on the bar code, IBM gave him the company's Outstanding Contribution Award in 1973. In 1992, he was given the National Medal for Technology and Innovation by the first President Bush. Last year, he was inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame. Norman Joseph Woodland is survived by his wife, one son, two daughters, his brother and a granddaughter.