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Remembering N. Joseph Woodward: The Man Behind the Barcode

N. Joseph Woodward was an ambitious and creative engineeer from New Jersey who had a number of inventive ideas throughout his life. From the very serious (he worked on the Manhattan Project during WWII) to the quirky (a new system to play elevator music), Woodward approached a wide range of projects with characteristic passion and ingenuity.

Thus, when Woodward heard that a supermarket executive was looking for a novel way to encode product information, he jumped at the opportunity to help. A graduate student at that time, Woodward dropped out of school and headed to his grandparents’ house in Miami to brainstorm. While it may have looked like Woodward was ditching school to play on the beach, in truth, the engineer’s mind was at work inventing the barcode. One winter’s day, he drew from his boy scout familiarity with morse code, and dug into the sand.

“N. Joseph Woodward”—it’s code for “brilliant.”

“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,” Woodward described in a 1999 interview. “I said: ‘Golly! Now I have four lines, and they could be wide lines and narrow lines instead of dots and dashes.’ ” With that, the barcode was born.

While the invention would endure some permutations–from circles to rectangles and, clearly, from sand to paper–cashiers today have Woodward and his colleague, Bernard Silver, to thank. Though the two only ever received $15,000 for their efforts, they were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

Read Woodward’s NYTimes obituary here.

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Caitlin Shure

    Caitlin is a contributor to the Secret Life blog. She is also a student at Columbia Journalism School, completing her master’s degree in science journalism. Caitlin does not love all science equally; favorite topics of rumination include neuroscience, genetics, and evolutionary theory. Caitlin draws inspiration from James Watson and Rupaul Andre Charles.