Photo of Norman Joseph Woodland

Norman Joseph Woodland

  • National Medal of Technology and Innovation
  • Electronics

For his invention and contribution to the commercialization of bar code technology which improved productivity in every industrial sector and gave rise to the bar code industry.

As a Boy Scout, Norman Joseph Woodland learned Morse code, which laid the foundation for his invention later in life—the barcode. In 1948, a local supermarket executive visited Drexel University where Woodland was studying. The executive implored a dean to develop an efficient means of encoding product data and Woodland became determined to solve it.

Woodland began by asking himself what would happen if Morse code were adapted graphically. Mr. Woodland told Smithsonian magazine in 1999 that 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. Instead of dots and dashes, there could be thin and thick lines, he reasoned.

Subsequently, Woodland went on to work for IBM and his team developed the laser scanner technology needed to read a barcode. The technology transformed grocery stores, automating and speeding up checkout aisles. Today, about 5 billion products per day are scanned and tracked worldwide with the help of barcodes.

By Jen Santisi