(NEW YORK) — Every time you check in at an airport or check out at a grocery store, you can thank Norman Joseph Woodland for speeding up the process.
Woodland, the co-inventor of the bar code, died on Sunday in New Jersey. He was 91.
Woodland was a student at Drexel University in the 1940s when he and a classmate learned a grocery executive was wondering about ways to capture product information at the checkout line.
Woodland was sitting on a beach one day when he thought of the Morse code he had learned as a Boy Scout and began drawing straight lines in the sand. He then realized that he could create a new type of code consisting of wide and narrow lines instead of dots and dashes.
Woodland and classmate Bernard Silver then created a circular pattern that could hold a combination of lines containing product information. The two were awarded a patent in 1952 — not for the term bar code, but for the name “Classifying Apparatus and Method.”
Their idea never caught on, however, and the two eventually sold their patent to Philco for $15,000. That’s the only money the two ever earned from their idea. Woodland went to work for IBM.
The patent eventually expired, and in the 1970s, thanks to laser scanning technology and the arrival of the microprocessor, the bar code became viable. An IBM colleague developed the familiar black-and-white rectangle design based on Woodland’s concept.
The bar code was adopted as a grocery industry standard in 1973. Today, it is everywhere, from food to lost luggage.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio