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How the Bar Code Took Over the World

A combination of three conditions led to the adoption of the bar code
How the Bar Code Took Over the World
Photograph by Monty Rakusen/Getty Images

In 1948 a supermarket executive came to the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia with a request. He wanted a technology that could encode information about his products. Two graduate students, Bernard Silver and N. Joseph Woodland, took up the challenge. Woodland became obsessed and dropped out of school to concentrate on it. That winter he was sitting on Miami Beach, dragging his fingers in the sand, when he had an idea for a series of lines of different widths that functioned like elongated versions of the dots and dashes of Morse Code—in other words, a bar code.

Woodland died on Dec. 9, but his invention is so successful that it’s almost invisible. Cereal boxes, soup cans, books, and magazines all have universal product codes. Anything you buy in a supermarket or department store does, too. Companies like Amazon.com use multiple bar codes to track packages. They’re so common we barely even recognize them as technology.