Remembering the Inventor of the Barcode

photo credit: Wikipedia

photo credit: Wikipedia

I am old enough to remember life before barcodes.

I remember purple inked stamping machines used to label items in a grocery store. In my youth I worked many a register where I had to punch in each and every price for each and every item.

Enter the barcode.

The very first barcode was scanned in a supermarket in Ohio, in 1974. (For trivia buffs: This first scanned product was a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum, on display now at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.)

But the invention goes back way way before 1974. The inspiration came on the beach to N. Joseph Woodland, back in 1948. He says he stuck his hand in the sand, and when pulling his fingers back through the sand, he saw the lines…. and …… ding! ding! ding! … the barcode was born.

N. Joseph Woodland and his friend Bernard Silver worked on the invention and filed a patent in 1949. But the tricky part, developing something to READ the lines, eluded them, and they sold their invention in 1952 for $15,000.

IBM eventually took the barcode to it’s debut in 1974, but Woodland was credited as a co-inventor and was honored by the White House in 1992 with the highest U.S. honor for technological achievement, the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

N. Joseph Woodland died last week at the age of 91.

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24 Comments

  1. I also remember the days before barcodes and am old enough to recall entering prices the old-fashioned way. It was after 1974, but barcodes didn’t go everywhere immediately….

    Reply
    • True… I imagine that was a pretty expensive changeover, getting readers, and scanners, etc. And the computers to set it all up. It was probably a big ordeal to adopt that bit of technology.

      Reply
  2. I had a store where we wrote out the receipts–we were retro in 1991

    Reply
  3. Not to mention what a problem it was to enter the code by hand when the computer wouldn’t read the scan–half the time it meant the information had never been entered into inventory.

    Reply
  4. an inspiring story, i had no idea where the barcode came from, and now it is everywhere in retail … the inventiveness of the human mind is incredible …

    Reply
  5. Chancy and Mumsy (Mag)

     /  December 18, 2012

    I too remember the days before barcodes and all those items I placed prices on when I worked at a grocery store. This was an interesting post. I had not ever heard how the barcode invention took place. Hugs

    Reply
  6. When we left Zimbabwe in the mid eighties, the barcode had still not arrived there and, if I remember correctly, it took a good few years after that before it arrived in South Africa. Did you also have people there who would not buy barcoded goods because they thought it had something to do with the devil? :) Seriously, some people here did. There were also those who thought it would ‘steal’ jobs. Now, we can’t imagine a world without them.

    Reply
    • Oh, my. No, I never heard the devil thing. But losing jobs…. yes. And it did, I’m sure. Technology is about to squeeze jobs out of tollbooth operators, here, now. The whole Pennsylvania turnpike is planning to go to “readers” only, no live people, in the next few years. “Toll Booth Collector” will be a job of the past.

      Reply
  7. How. Interesting. I wonder how he connected those lines into prices? I could see those lines until I died, and I would never have put them together!!

    Reply
  8. I saw a news report on this and found it fascinating that from a simple gesture of running a hand through the sand, the idea of the barcode took flight.

    Reply
  9. I certainly do remember….interesting!

    Reply
  10. What an inspired invention. This was something I didn’t know and it’s fascinating. Thanks for the info!

    Reply

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