N. Joseph Woodland, 91; helped invent the bar code

Mr. Woodland with a diagram of a supermarket check-out station in 1974 at an IBM laboratory in Raleigh, N.C.
Mr. Woodland with a diagram of a supermarket check-out station in 1974 at an IBM laboratory in Raleigh, N.C.

NEW YORK — N. Joseph Woodland, who six decades ago drew a set of lines in the sand and in the process conceived the modern bar code, died Sunday at his home in Edgewater, N.J. He was 91.

A retired mechanical engineer, Mr. Woodland was a graduate student when he and a classmate, ­Bernard Silver, created a technology, based on a printed series of wide and narrow striations, that ­encoded consumer product information for optical scanning.

Their idea, developed in the late 1940s and patented 60 years ago this fall, turned out to be ahead of its time. But it ultimately gave rise to the universal product code, or UPC, as the prevalent rectangular bar code is officially known.


The code now adorns tens of millions of different items, scanned in establishments around the world at the rate of more than 5 billion a day.

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The bar code would never have developed as it did without a chain of unusual events.

Had Mr. Woodland not been a Boy Scout, had he not logged hours on the beach, and had his father not been quite so afraid of organized crime, the code would probably not have been invented as it was, if at all.

Norman Joseph Woodland was born in Atlantic City. As a Boy Scout he learned Morse code, the spark that would ­ignite his invention.

After spending World War II on the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Mr. Woodland resumed his studies at Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia (it is now Drexel University), receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1947.


As an undergraduate, Mr. Woodland perfected a system for delivering elevator music efficiently. His system, which recorded 15 simultaneous audio tracks on 35-millimeter film, was less cumbersome than existing methods, which relied on LPs and reel-to-reel tapes.

He planned to pursue the project commercially, but his father, who had come of age in ‘‘Boardwalk Empire”-era Atlantic City, forbade it: elevator music, he said, was controlled by the mob, and no son would come within spitting distance.

Mr. Woodland returned to Drexel for a master’s degree. In 1948, a supermarket executive visited and implored a dean to develop an efficient means of encoding product data.

The dean demurred, but Silver, a fellow graduate student who overheard their conversation, was ­intrigued. He conscripted Mr. Woodland.

An early idea of theirs, which involved printing product information in fluorescent ink and reading it with ultraviolet light, proved unworkable.


But Mr. Woodland, convinced a solution was close at hand, quit graduate school to devote himself to the problem. He holed up at his grandparents’ home in Miami Beach, where he spent the winter of 1948-49 on the sand, thinking.

To represent information ­visually, he realized, he would need a code. The only code he knew was the one he had learned in the Boy Scouts.

What, Mr. Woodland wondered, if Morse code, with its ­elegant simplicity and limitless combinatorial potential, were adapted graphically?

‘‘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.’­ ’’

That transformative sweep was merely the beginning. ­‘‘Only seconds later,’’ Mr. Woodland continued, ‘‘I took my four fingers — they were still in the sand — and I swept them around into a full circle.’’

He favored the circular pattern for its omnidirectionality: a checkout clerk, he reasoned, could scan a product without regard for its orientation.

On Oct. 7, 1952, Mr. Woodland and Silver were awarded US patent 2,612,994 for their invention — a variegated bull’s-eye of wide and narrow bands — on which they had bestowed the unromantic name ‘‘Classifying Apparatus and Method.’’

But that method, which depended on an immense scanner, was expensive and unwieldy. It languished for years.

The two men eventually sold their patent to Philco for $15,000, all they ever made from their invention.

By the time the patent expired at the end of the 1960s, Mr. Woodland was at IBM, where he worked from 1951 until his retirement in 1987.

Over time, laser scanning technology and the advent of the microprocessor made the bar code viable. In the early 1970s, an IBM colleague, George J. Laurer, designed the familiar black-and-white rectangle, based on the Woodland-Silver model and drawing on Mr. Woodland’s input.

Thanks largely to the work of Alan Haberman, a supermarket executive who helped select and popularize the rectangular bar code and who died in 2011, it was adopted as the industry standard in 1973.

Mr. Woodland, who earned a master’s in mechanical engineering from Syracuse University in the 1950s, received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 1992. Last year, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.Silver died in 1963.