By Kathleen Ryan
Universal Product Codes (UPCs) are part of our everyday lives. Whether we’re checking out groceries at the supermarket, getting medicine from the pharmacy, or shipping a package, the bar code and scanner are standard technologies for capturing and registering pricing and other retail information.
But it wasn’t always this way. Before bar codes, the process of pricing was laborious, time consuming and a drain on resources. Prices were placed on individual products by hand, usually with the thump of a price “stamper,” and then read by a cashier who then tapped the price into the cash register, by hand. Weekly price changes started the process all over again.
That all changed in June of 1974 when a clerk scanned a pack of Wrigley’s gum at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio. The technology rapidly took hold and today it shows up on virtually every retail product. Today the non-profit governing body for bar codes says that uniform standards for UPC codes are used by more than one million companies around the world.
One of the pioneers of bar code technology, retired IBM employee N. Joseph Woodland, died this week. He was 91.
I had the privilege of interviewing Joe Woodland back in 2004. The U.S. was adopting the European standard of UPC codes. Joe was a little hard of hearing, but he could remember events from 50 years earlier as if they took place the day before.
Woodland talked about how he and a colleague began thinking about codes for supermarket products in the late 1940s after hearing grocery store operators complain about high labor costs associated with manual price changes.
His inspiration? Morse code.
“Morse code had been used in flashes of light and in flashes of sound,”Woodland said. “I got the bright idea of putting it on paper so that it could be scanned by a computer.”
He joined IBM in 1951. “I went to IBM to see if they would be interested in using the technology that I had come up with,” Woodland said. “I really started to work on it while I was on the faculty at Drexel (University).”
Woodland and Bernard Silver, his co-inventor, received patent No. 2,612,994 in 1952 for their idea, though the patent was for a circular “bull’s eye” image, rather than the familiar rectangular shape that was developed a couple of decades later as the technology caught up to the invention.
“I was sitting in my office at IBM in White Plains, N.Y., and I received a phone call from someone who later became one of my best friends,”Woodland said. They talked about bar code technology and within a few hours,Woodland was told to transfer to Raleigh, N.C., to work on the team that IBM had assembled to help retailers adopt the bar code technology in advance of the 1974 launch at Marsh’s Grocery Stores in Ohio.
From 1971 through 1982, Woodland was responsible for developing IBM’s UPC technology and selling it to the grocery industry. He worked with George J. Lauer, another IBM employee, now retired, who developed the engineering behind the rectangular appearance of the modern-day bar code.
During the 1992 presidential election race, then-President George H.W. Bush made news headlines when he seemed surprised by products being scanned in a store though the technology had been in use for almost two decades. Later that year, President Bush awarded a National Medal of Technology to Woodland for his “invention and contribution to the commercialization of bar code technology, which improved productivity in every industrial sector.”
During the White House Rose Garden ceremony, Woodland said, “When President Bush gave me the medal, he said, ‘There are people that felt I didn’t know what a bar code was when I saw it. But I really know what it is now.’”
Woodland was inducted in the National Inventors Hall of Fame last year. As noted in his obituary in the New York Times, Woodland worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II, and is survived by his wife and other family members.
During IBM’s Centennial Year in 2011, the bar code’s success was named one of the company’s Icons of Progress because of the tremendous role that UPC codes played in the transformation of the retail industry worldwide over the past five decades.