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December 17, 2012

Inventor of the Barcode Passes Away

By Oliver VanDervoort, Contributing Writer

While only the hardcore techies may recognize the name, Norman Woodland is one of those people who changed the way we go about our business, especially in the retail industry, forever. Norman Woodland was the man who is largely credited with inventing the barcode, the inventory tracking tool that has changed global commerce in such a way that it seems hard to imagine just how people did business before it was invented. It may surprise some to realize that the barcode has only been around since the 1970’s. Woodland passed away last week, at the age of 91. 

These days, almost every piece of inventory you can think of carries its own special barcode. The coding has become so commonplace that smartphones and tablets have come equipped with barcode readers as a way to develop a wide array of different functions. Healthcare industries have adopted devices that include barcode readers in order to keep track of the amount of medicine a facility has and how quickly various drugs leave the facilities. 

Image via Shutterstock

Susan Woodland, the inventor’s granddaughter, said that Norman and co-inventor Bernard "Bob" Silver were both graduate students at an engineering school located in Philadelphia, which is now known as Drexel University. This is where they came up with the idea of the barcode. She said that the idea came about after Silver overheard a grocery store manager talking to the dean of students about coming up with an idea that would allow stores to inventory items at the cash registers.

"My dad really liked to think about interesting problems," Susan Woodland said in a recent interview.

The two inventors based the barcode on a sort of visual Morse code. They put in a series of lines and dashes that could be read by a laser. The barcode was actually something the two came up with in the 1950’s, but they had to wait nearly two decades for laser technology to catch up to the point where it could read the lines and dashes as numbers.

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Edited by Brooke Neuman
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