While a graduate student in Mechanical Engineering, Woodland was approached by a fellow student, Bernard Silver, who had overheard a grocery store executive’s meeting with the Dean: the grocery industry wanted a way to encode product data. The Dean sent him away. Silver and Woodland thought they could do the project themselves, and Woodland quit school and moved into his grandfather’s beach house to consider the problem. The only “code” he knew was Morse Code, learned while a Boy Scout, and he pondered on that.
While sitting in a beach chair, “I poked my four fingers into the sand and for whatever reason — I didn’t know — I pulled my hand toward me and drew four lines,” he remembered years later. “I said: ’Golly! Now I have four lines, and they could be wide lines and narrow lines instead of dots and dashes,’” as with Morse Code. He had invented the bar code, and the duo obtained a patent on the system in 1952. But he was ahead of his time: no one really wanted to pursue the idea since the scanner was huge and power hungry, and they sold the patent for $15,000. Later, while working for IBM, that company started working on a way to encode product data for the grocery industry, and Woodland’s bar code was brought up. Another IBM engineer took Woodland’s circular design (which Woodland favored because it could be read from any orientation), straightened out the lines, and created the Universal Product Code, which took off because cheap lasers made the scanners much smaller and more efficient. By then, the patent had expired, and the UPC is now ubiquitous on virtually every product sold at a store. In 1992, Woodland was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, and in 2001 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Silver died in 1963. Woodland died December 9. He was 91.