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Bar code’s co-inventor dies at 91

Ubiquitous UPC created in 1940s

– Norman Joseph Woodland, the co-inventor of the bar code that labels nearly every product in stores and has boosted productivity in nearly every sector of commerce worldwide, has died. He was 91.

Woodland and Bernard Silver were students at what is now Drexel University in Philadelphia when Silver heard a grocery store executive ask an engineering school dean to get students working on how product information could be captured at checkout, Susan Woodland said.

Woodland dropped out of graduate school to work on the idea. He spent time with his grandfather in Miami to focus on developing a code that could symbolically capture details about an item, Susan Woodland said.

The only code Woodland knew was the Morse code he’d learned in Boy Scouts, his daughter said. One day, he drew Morse dots and dashes as he sat on the beach and absent-mindedly left his fingers in the sand, where they traced a series of parallel lines.

“It was a moment of inspiration. He said, ‘instead of dots and dashes, I can have thick and thin bars,’ ” Susan Woodland said.

Woodland and Silver submitted their patent in 1949 for a code patterned on concentric circles that looked like a bull’s eye. The patent was issued in 1952, 60 years ago this fall. Silver died in 1963.

The first product sold using a universal product code, or UPC, scan was a 67-cent package of Wrigley’s chewing gum at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio, in June 1974, according to GS1 US, the American affiliate of the global standard-setting UPC body.

Today, about 5 billion products are scanned and tracked worldwide daily.

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