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Tuesday 12 December 2017

Joseph Woodland

The co-inventor of the barcode who came up with the revolutionary idea while he was relaxing on a beach

Joseph Woodland, who died last Sunday aged 91, was the co-inventor of the ubiquitous barcode, the thick and thin line recording system that has revolutionised retail.

Woodland was a graduate student at the Drexel Institute of Technology, Philadelphia, when in 1948 the institute was asked by a grocery chain to find a way to encode product data in order to automate the checkout process. Woodland and fellow student Bernard Silver took on the challenge.

Woodland came up with the idea for the barcode while sitting on a beach: "I poked my four fingers into the sand and for whatever reason . . . I pulled my hand toward me and drew four lines," he told Smithsonian magazine in 1999. Recalling the Morse code he had learned in the Boy Scouts, he realised the lines could be turned into a code by varying their widths.

The students developed a "bullseye" barcode in which the lines appear as concentric rings of varying thickness, and in 1952 gained a patent. But the idea failed to catch on, as the back-up laser and computer technology did not exist. The pair had developed a method of shining light on to the lines, and employing a light-sensitive tube to pick up the pattern and convert it into electrical signals. But the technique was expensive. They sold the patent for $15,000.

Over the next 20 years some manufacturers and retailers introduced their own product coding systems, but there was no standardisation until the early Seventies, when the big US grocery chains agreed a standard symbol known as the Universal Product Code, or UPC.

By then the original patent had lapsed, and although many experts favoured the "bullseye" barcode, they opted for a cheaper black-and-white vertical bar system created by George Laurer of IBM.

Today the barcode is scanned five billion times in shops worldwide every day. It has also spread into many other fields, even allowing beekeepers to monitor the movements of honey bees (via tiny barcodes attached to their backs).

Norman Joseph Woodland was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on September 6, 1921. During the Second World War he worked as project historian and technical aide on the Manhattan Project that produced the first atom bombs.

After taking a degree in mechanical engineering at the Drexel Institute, he later took a master's degree at Syracuse University, New York. In 1951 he joined IBM as a design engineer, where he worked with Laurer on developing the barcode laser scanner system. Woodland retired in 1987.

He is survived by his wife Jacqueline and their two daughters.

Sunday Independent

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