Billions of barcodes are read each day, yet the two men who developed the first barcode symbol earned a mere $15,000 for the patent. Barcodes track retail products, manufacturing parts, shipping containers, packages, medicine and patients, documents, inventory and almost everything produced and transported. Many companies create barcodes using barcode label software. It all started with the request of a grocer who sought a system to track groceries.
The year was 1948 and Drexel Institute of Technology graduate student Bernard Silver overheard a grocery store executive ask Drexel's dean to develop a system to capture product information at checkout. The dean dismissed the idea, but Silver discussed the proposal with fellow grad student Norman Joseph Woodland. After initial work on the project, Woodland dropped out of school and moved to his grandparents' home in Miami to develop the idea. While sitting on the beach, Woodland thought of representing Morse code graphically.
"I poked my four fingers into the sand and for whatever reason – I didn't know – I pulled my hand toward me and drew four lines," Woodland told Smithsonian Magazine in 1999. "I said: 'Golly! Now I have four lines, and they could be wide lines and narrow lines instead of dots and dashes.'" Woodland said he kept his fingers in the sand and swept them into a full circle.
He reportedly favored the circular barcode design because he thought it could be read from any direction and would be easier for checkout cashiers to scan. Woodland, who died in 2012, and Silver, who died in 1963, patented both the linear and circular barcode invention in 1952, dubbing it the "Classifying Apparatus and Method." But the invention was ahead of its time and the 500-watt scanning technology required to read the first barcodes was costly and impractical.
The barcode didn't take off until the 1970s with the advent of laser scanning. Woodland and Silver had sold their patent in 1953 to Philco for $15,000. The patent expired in 1969, but Woodland already was at work for IBM on barcode technology. He was a key figure in the development of the Universal Product Code, the only barcode used to track products at point of sale.
Early in the 1970s, IBM designed the commonly seen black-and-white rectangular barcode, based on the model Woodland and Silver invented. The technology now appears on almost everything. Five billion barcodes are scanned each day, according to GS1, a not-for-profit barcode standards association.
Woodland never regretted selling the initial barcode patent. He was more interested in spreading the science of the invention. He received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 1992 and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2011, according to The New York Times. Silver was inducted into the hall of fame posthumously at the same time.
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