Sixty years ago young Norman Woodland and a fellow student were relaxing on a New Jersey beach when Woodland drew four lines in the sand. It was the beginning of what we know today as the barcode, or Universal Product Code.
Woodland died this week at his New Jersey home from complications of Alzheimer's disease. He was 91.
What's an optical scanner?
In October 1952 Woodland and classmate Bernard Silver were awarded a U.S. patent for something called "classifying apparatus and method." In a day before computers, Woodland had figured out that a pattern of thick and thin lines could be used to identify objects for an optical scanner, which at the time existed mostly in theory.
He based his system on Morse Code, which he had learned as a Boy Scout. Instead of dots and dashes to form words, Woodland used lines.
The world didn't exactly beat a path to his door. The invention lay dormant for two more decades. All the while, consumers waited patiently in line at the supermarket while the cashier dutifully looked for a price tag on each item and entered it in the cash register.
Supermarkets take the lead
By the mid 1970s grocery stores started experimenting with barcodes and optical scanners. The goal was to increase productivity and speed the checkout process for the consumer. By the 1980s nearly every supermarket chain in America was scanning products and speeding consumers on their way.
The first barcodes, as designed by Woodland and Silver, were round -- almost like the bullseye of a target. The design was so a clerk could scan the code from any angle. They later became the rectangular pattern consumers now see every day.
According to "A Brief History of Barcodes," published in Esquire in 2010, the first Universal Product Code marked item ever scanned at a retail checkout occured at Marsh's supermarket in Troy, Ohio, was at 8:01 a.m. on June 26, 1974, and was a 10-pack of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit chewing gum.