The Killer App – Bar None

WHAT The bar code and scanning device
WHEN Invented in 1949; patented in 1952; first used commercially in 1974
WHERE South Beach, Miami Beach, Florida
WHO Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver

The format for the bar code came to Joe Woodland while he was at the beach in 1949. Woodland, who is now 80, had spent World War II working on the Manhattan Project. After the war, he returned to Drexel University to teach mechanical engineering. While there, Woodland’s colleague, Bernard Silver, overheard the president of the Food Fair grocery stores appealing to a Drexel dean for help automating the grocery checkout process. So Woodland and Silver started brainstorming ideas.

Months later, Woodland was relaxing at the beach, considering how Morse code might be used to solve the problem. He idly stuck his fingers in the sand and raked a set of parallel lines that represented a kind of “long form” of dots and dashes. Those lines inspired the bar-code design that he and Silver ultimately patented.

Today, more than a million companies worldwide use the familiar UPC (Universal Product Code) symbols to identify consumer products. The Uniform Code Council, which issues the codes, estimates that UPC symbols are scanned some 5 billion times a day — and that represents only half of the total bar-code universe.

The equipment and software used to print, scan, and program bar codes is a $16-billion-a-year business. Even Woodland is amazed at how widespread the bar code has become. “Fifty years ago, we didn’t even imagine all of the ways that it would be used in the grocery store.”

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