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Lines in the Sands of Time: Engineer Joseph Woodland

February 7th, 2013
At 91, Joseph Woodland achieved more than most of us could ever dream. He created an image–overlooked, repetitive, but so important for everyday commerce–the bar code.

Think about it. How many times during the day do you come across a product with a bar code? On your cereal box, your can of soda pop, a pack of printer paper, dog food, dresses, boxes of shoes, books, tablets, etc. There is probably even a bar code for that next car you are going to buy. Bar codes are everywhere, and yet, we are so used to them, we may never stop to think where they originated from.

60 years ago, Woodland came up with the idea at a local beach. Woodland, a graduate student in engineering, drew a pattern of lines in the sand–the prototype for the modern bar code.

Woodland and classmate, Bernard Silver, created this technology based on the different sets of lines that could be scanned for all sorts of information, particularly on consumer goods. The original format for the bar code was round, and earned the duo around $15,000.

Woodland’s life contributed to his interest in bar codes. As a young boy in Atlantic City, Woodland joined the boy scouts. There he learned morse code. As an undergraduate at Drexel University, Woodland perfected a system for delivering elevator music. The system allowed for easier recording methods of 15 audio tracks on 35-millimeter film, rather than the then current system of LPs and reel-to-reel tapes.

However, Woodland’s father would not let him pursue his invention. His father believed elevator music was controlled by the mob, and wanted his son to stay away from it. Woodland returned to Drexel for a master’s degree.

While at Drexel, a supermarket executive visited the campus, asking a dean to work on a project that would encode product data. Silver overheard the conversation and asked Woodland if he’d be interested in working on the project. The idea came to Woodland while sitting on a beach.

If he could graphically represent the morse code he’d learned in boy scouts, he could create a system. Woodland actually preferred the round version, as he believed it would be easier to scan without precise proximity to a scanner.

In Oct. 1952, Woodland and Silver’s patent for their “Classifying Apparatus and Method” became official. The original scanner was large and cumbersome, and so the duo sold their idea to Philco, to help it come to fruition. Their patent expired at the end of the 1960s, but by then, Woodland was on staff at I.B.M. The technology was widely used in supermarkets by the 1970s.

Woodland received his master’s in mechanical engineering from Syracuse University and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He also received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 1992.

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