Dec. 13, 2012 at 2:49 PM ET
N. Joseph Woodland, who in a moment of serendipity arrived at the idea for the now-ubiquitous barcode while sitting in the sand at Miami Beach, passed away at his home in Edgewater, N.J. on Sunday. He was 91.
Patented 60 years ago, Woodland's idea of encoding numbers as a pattern akin to Morse code would soon be used everywhere from grocery stores to manufacturing lines. As noted by the New York Times, "The code now adorns tens of millions of different items, scanned in retail establishments around the world at the rate of more than five billion a day. "
Woodland's path to the barcode was circuitous. Following a stint working on the Manhattan Project, he was approached by Bernard Silver, a classmate at the Drexel Institute of Technology, to work on a new project. Silver had an idea after overhearing a local supermarket executive asking the Drexel dean to help create a universal product labeling system. He recruited Woodland to pursue the idea, and the project became Woodland's new passion.
The initial collaboration failed to pan out, however, and Woodland moved in 1948 to his grandparents' place in Miami Beach to ponder the problem. There he found in the sand at his feet what he couldn't find in a lab at the university.
Drawing his fingers through the sand, Woodland was struck by the similarity of such simple marks and Morse Code, which he had learned as a Boy Scout. He reconvened with Silver and by October of 1949 they had submitted a patent application for the barcode's progenitor: A bull's-eye of concentric bands that differed in width, which could be scanned at any orientation to produce a unique number.
Unfortunately, the reading apparatus was too cumbrous for stores, so the project was again abandoned and Woodland went to work for IBM. His chance came again in the early 1970s, when several colleagues took up the idea again and produced what we now know as the Universal Product Code or barcode.
So, while Woodland didn't produce the system on his own, it was his and Silver's work in 1949 that made it possible. Hence we may consider him the "grandfather" of the barcode.
Numerals in the UPC system are encoded as a series of bars, two black and two white, of varying widths. The dark and light areas can be read extremely rapidly by a laser scanner, and simple built-in error correction keeps reliability high.
It's such an efficient and extensible system that it's still in use more than 40 years after its invention, and virtually unchanged at that except for a few adjustments in scanners and international standards. Few inventors could make such a claim, but Woodland was certainly one of them.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.