N. Joseph Woodland, a co-inventor of the system of thick and thin lines that today is the ubiquitous bar code, has died. He was 91.
Woodland and Bernard Silver developed the bar code as graduate students at Drexel University in Philadelphia -- then called Drexel Institute of Technology -- in the late 1940s.
According to Drexel, the head of a local grocery-store chain had sought the university’s engineering help in 1948 to advance the checkout process. Woodland, in an article in Wonders of Modern Technology, recalled that he took his inspiration from the dots and dashes of Morse code.
“I just extended the dots and dashes downwards and made narrow lines and wide lines out of them,” Woodland said in the article, according to Drexel.
The system created by Woodland and Silver relied on the varying brightness of light shone through the lines -- the thicker the line, the more light it blocked. The engineers filed for a patent on Oct. 20, 1949.
Woodland went to work for International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) in 1951 with hopes that the idea would be further developed. He received the patent, No. 2,612,994, on Oct. 7, 1952, according to IBM.
In 1973, a rectangular bar code promoted by IBM, after substantial design input by Woodland, was formally adopted as the Universal Product Code, according to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, which inducted Woodland and Silver in 2011. Silver died in 1963, according to the Times.
Norman Joseph Woodland was born on Sept. 6, 1921, and grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, according to the Hall of Fame.
During World War II, he was a technical assistant on the Manhattan Project to develop the world’s first atom bomb, according to an IBM profile.
After the war, Woodland earned his bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from Drexel and a master of science at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York.
He retired from IBM in 1987. In 1992, he received the National Medal of Technology from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, along with Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates and six other recipients.
In addition to his daughter, Susan, Woodland is survived by his wife, the former Jacqueline Blumberg, whom he married in 1951; a second daughter, Betsy Karpenkopf; a brother, David; and a granddaughter, according to the Times.
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