Passing of an innovator: Norman Joseph Woodland and the story behind the stripes

One of Drexel’s technological claims to fame, the barcode, recently celebrated its 60th birthday in October. Sadly, less than two months later, Norman Joseph Woodland, one of its co-creators, passed away at the age of 91. Woodland and his classmate Bernard Silver developed the universally recognizable product code stripes that helped put Drexel – Drexel Institute of Technology, in their day – on the map as an engineering school.

The College of Engineering celebrated the anniversary by unveiling a plaque in the Bossone Center on Oct. 22. While I was sifting through the legend and lore surrounding the invention, I came across some interesting info courtesy of the Drexel Archives, including these yearbook photos of the dashing young inventors.


             Bernard Silver                                Norman Joseph Woodland

Here are a few behind-the-barcode stories that didn’t make it into the news release.

All good inventions start with a problem. In 1948 that problem, for Samuel Friedland, the head of the Food Fair supermarket chain headquartered in Philadelphia, was the need to automate the grocery checkout process. Friedland brought his problem to Drexel Technical Institute, hoping to tap the engineering school for a solution. Silver, a graduate student in electrical engineering, overheard Friedland talking to one of the deans about the problem. He took up the cause and enlisted the help of his colleague in mechanical engineering, Woodland. And the rest is history…well almost.

Woodland was so taken by the project that he left his teaching post at Drexel in 1949 and went to live with his grandfather in Miami that winter. According to an article published in the Wonders of Modern Technology, Woodland’s eureka moment came when he was walking on the beach.  Starting with the dots and dashes of a message in Morse code, Woodland extended the lines of each dot and dash to make bars of varying width – sound familiar?

Inventing the device that reads barcodes was a bit more complicated. Woodland originally wanted to use ink that would glow under ultraviolet light, but that idea fizzled due to the instability of the ink at the time and the cost of printing. The next method was based on the idea of the movie sound system of the 1920s. A printed pattern on the edge of the film would block light at varying degrees, the shifts in brightness were then recorded by a light sensitive tube on the other side of the film and translated into electric waves that generated sound track of the movie.

Using a 500-watt incandescent light bulb, the pair was able to reflect light off the coded paper and onto an RCA935 photo-multiplier tube hooked to an oscilloscope. After an attempt that nearly setting the paper on fire with the heat of the light bulb, the inventors succeeded in getting the signal on the oscilloscope to jump, meaning that the device had “read” the code.

They applied for the patent on Oct. 20, 1949 and it was granted nearly three years later, on Oct. 7, 1952 for “Classifying Apparatus and Method”…thus the barcode was born.

Postscript- Silver tragically passed away in a car accident at age 38. Woodland went on to develop the Universal Product Code (UPC) which is still seen on nearly every product in the grocery story today. He worked for IBM until 1987 and he continued to serve as a consultant for the company and Drexel after retirement. Woodland and Silver have been enshrined in the National Inventors Hall of Fame and Woodland received a National Medal of Technology. Woodland passed away on December 9, 2012. During the week that followed more than 800 media outlets ran stories about the Drexel alumnus and his contribution to modern technology.

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