N JOSEPH WOODLAND, INVENTOR, 1921-2012
Joseph Woodland invented the barcode and scanning system in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but he was ahead of his time and his invention did not become commercially viable until two decades later, when computer and laser technology had caught up enough to make barcoding feasible.
The set of thick and thin white-and-black lines rapidly became one of the most successful and widespread developments in information technology.
Although barcodes had some limited use from the late 1960s, it was not until the appearance of the Universal Product Code in the 1970s that the technology became widely used.
Norman Joseph Woodland was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1921 and attended high school there. He graduated from Drexel University in 1947 with a BSc in mechanical engineering, but stayed on for further studies and to teach. He later took a master's degree at Syracuse University, New York.
In 1948, Drexel was approached by the head of a local grocery store chain, who was eager to find an efficient way to automate the checkout process. Inspired by Morse code, Woodland created a pattern of lines.
"I just extended the dots and dashes downwards and made narrow lines and wide lines out of them," he said in a magazine interview.
He went further and developed circular patterns made of concentric rings of varying thickness to remove the effect of orientation on scanning the code. A patent was granted for a Classifying Apparatus and Method in 1952.
However, the invention was ahead of its time. The technique was cumbersome and it wasn't until the advent of affordable laser and computer technology that a practical way to read the code was developed and the concept took off. The Times
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