N. Joseph Woodland, the co-inventor of the bar code that labels nearly every product in stores and has boosted productivity in nearly every sector of commerce worldwide, died Dec. 9 in Edgewater, N.J. He was 91.
He had Alzheimer’s disease, said his daughter Susan Woodland.
Mr. Woodland and Bernard “Bob” Silver were students at what is now Drexel University in Philadelphia when Silver overheard a grocery-store executive asking an engineering school dean to channel students into research on how product information could be captured at checkout.
Mr. Woodland, who had worked on the Manhattan Project, the atomic bomb development team, and had already earned a mechanical engineering degree, dropped out of graduate school to work on the bar-code idea.
He stole away to spend time with his grandfather in Miami to focus on developing a code that could symbolically capture details about an item, Susan Woodland said. The only code Mr. Woodland knew was the Morse code he had learned in the Boy Scouts.
“What I’m going to tell you sounds like a fairy tale,” Mr. Woodland told Smithsonian magazine in 1999. “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.’ ”
In 1949, Mr. Woodland and Silver submitted their patent for a code patterned on concentric circles that looked like a bull’s-eye. The patent was issued in 1952.
Mr. Woodland joined IBM in 1951 hoping to develop the bar code, but the technology wasn’t accepted for more than two decades, until lasers made it possible to read the code readily, the technology company said.
In the early 1970s, Mr. Woodland moved to Raleigh, N.C., to join a team at IBM’s Research Triangle Park facility. The team developed a bar-code-reading laser scanner system in response to grocers’ desires to automate and speed checkout while also cutting handling and inventory management costs.
IBM promoted a rectangular bar code that led to a standard for universal product code technology. The first product sold using a UPC scan was a 67-cent package of Wrigley’s chewing gum at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio, in June 1974, according to GS1 US, the American affiliate of the global standard-setting UPC body.
Today, about 5 billion products are scanned and tracked worldwide every day, including sale items, airline boarding passes, military equipment, hospital patients, livestock and highway toll customers, GS1 US says.
Norman Joseph Woodland was born Sept. 6, 1921, in Atlantic City.
He retired from IBM in 1987. In 1992, he received the National Medal of Technology from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Silver died in 1963.
In addition to his daughter, Susan, Mr. Woodland is survived by his wife, the former Jacqueline Blumberg, whom he married in 1951; another daughter, Betsy Karpenkopf; a brother; and a granddaughter, according to the New York Times.