Inventor of the Bar Code, Joseph Woodland, Remembered

It was born on a beach six decades ago, the product of a pressing need, an intellectual spark and the sweep of a young man’s fingers through the sand.

The result adorns almost every product of contemporary life, including groceries, wayward luggage and, if you are a traditionalist, the newspaper you are holding.

The man on the beach that day was a mechanical-engineer-in-training named N. Joseph Woodland. With that transformative stroke of his fingers — yielding a set of literal lines in the sand — Mr. Woodland, who died on Sunday at 91, conceived the modern bar code.

Mr. Woodland was a graduate student when he and a classmate, Bernard Silver, created a technology, based on a printed series of wide and narrow striations, that encoded consumer-product information for optical scanning.

Their idea, developed in the late 1940s and patented 60 years ago this fall, turned out to be ahead of its time, and the two men together made only $15,000 from it. But the curious round symbol they devised would ultimately give rise to the universal product code, or U.P.C., as the staggeringly prevalent rectangular bar code (it graces tens of millions of different items) is officially known.

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