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Paying Tribute to Innovation

Does the name Norman Joseph Woodland mean anything to you? It might not, but on a daily basis you most likely utilize something he invented more than 60 years ago.

Mr. Woodland was the co-inventor of the barcode, the optical machine readable representation of data relating to the item to which it is attached. Today, almost every product has some form of barcode which provides descriptive information. It’s estimated that about 5 billion products are scanned and tracked worldwide every day.

Mr. Woodland recently passed away at the age of 91 but his legacy will live on forever. As a student at Drexel University, Woodland overheard a grocery store executive ask an engineering school dean to research how product information could be captured at checkout.   He then dropped out of school (having already completed a mechanical engineering degree) to work on the bar code idea. According to his daughter, he came up with the idea when he was at the beach and started drawing dots and dashes in the sand (he knew Morse Code) and then traced a series of parallel lines. The thick and thin bars concept then came from that inspiration. Mr. Woodland later joined IBM where the barcode finally came to fruition.

After years of development spanning from the 1950s to the 1970s the Universal Product Code (UPC) made its way into stores everywhere and became the fundamental method for tracking and monitoring products. Mr. Woodward saw that innovation through to the first scanned use of the UPP in 1974. Although it took time, the UPP gained great acceptance and importance in the retail world.  I remember my dad working at the regional supermarket chain in the early 1990s outfitting the front-end check out aisles with scanner technology. I remember thinking how interesting it was that so much information on the grocery items could be captured as they easily passed over the scanner.  I also recall him telling me about how the data then was transferred to the inventory systems of the store.  Pretty cool stuff.

Barcodes later paved the way for Quick Response Code (or QR Code). This two-dimensional barcode image gained popularity due to its fast readability and greater storage capacity. Today consumers not only see their items rung-up at the point-of-sale (POS) via UPC codes and scanning technology, but also have the ability to make a purchase from their mobile device using QR or barcode technology. Their purchasing details (i.e. credit card information) can be stored in the cloud (secure data center) and called upon at the POS via the representation the QR or barcode on a mobile device which the POS will scan to complete the purchase. 

Mr. Woodward‘s name may never be as well known as it should however his invention will likely live on as his greatest legacy.  The bar code and its successors have been instrumental in changing the way we purchase and monitor inventory. The bar code is now as common as the remote control and the microwave oven.  Norman Joseph Woodland may not possess the immediate recognition of some other inventors but his accomplishments should compare favorably.