Bar Code Co-Inventor Was Always Experimenting

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Audie Cornish and Robert Siegel remember Norman Joseph Woodland, an inventor of the bar code. He died Sunday at the age of 91.


If one sound could define a man's career, Norman Joseph Woodland would be best described by this:


SIEGEL: That's the sound of a bar code scanner, and Woodland was the mind behind the lines. He co-invented the bar code. Woodland died Sunday at his home in Edgewater, New Jersey. He was 91.

SUSAN WOODLAND: From a very early age, my dad was really interested in how things worked.


That's his daughter, Susan Woodland.

WOODLAND: He was always doing experiments in the kitchen, and my mom would try and get him to use, you know, the old pots and pans and not the new pots and pans. Let's see what would happen if we melted this, you know.


CORNISH: But Joseph Woodland - he preferred Joe - didn't find inspiration for the bar code in old pots and pans. Instead, he found it on the beach.

SIEGEL: In the late 1940s, Woodland left his graduate studies at what was then called Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia. He wanted to figure out a way to encode product data, specifically for grocery stores. So he traveled to his grandparents' house in Miami to think it over.

WOODLAND: He said the first day he took his beach chair, went down to the beach and he was thinking this problem needs some kind of a code and the only code that I know is Morse Code.

CORNISH: And then finally something clicked. Or should we say beeped?

WOODLAND: He stuck his fingers in the sand for whatever reason and was thinking, you know, dots and dashes and pulled his fingers toward him and created lines, and he said that's a code.

CORNISH: In 1952, Woodland and fellow Drexel student Bob Silver were awarded a patent for their design. But it took several years for technology to catch up to their idea, and the two engineers ended up selling the patent for $15,000. As ubiquitous as the bar code is, neither made a fortune. But his daughter Susan says that never really mattered.

WOODLAND: You know, if he gave blood and he saw that they put a bar code on the bag, he was just so tickled with that that it became much more than grocery store inventory, much more than he ever expected.

SIEGEL: Norman Joseph Woodland, co-inventor of the bar code, died on Sunday. He was 91.


THE CAPRIS: (Singing) I sent my baby a telegram asking to be her man, begging her to come back home to me.

WOODLAND: He loved when he started to see things in a store. He always wore this T-shirt that had a big bar code on the front. Yeah. It was hysterical.



CAPRIS: (Singing) Dit dot. Baby, I want your love. Woo. Baby, I need your love. Woo. Honey, honey, come back home to me. Dit dot. Got to have your love. Woo. Can't live without your love. Woo. Honey, honey, come back home to me.

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED at NPR News.

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