The Universal Product Code

Norman Woodland was born in 1921 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. When he graduated from high school, he served on the Manhattan Project as a technologist. He then went to college and obtained a degree in mechanical engineering.

When a supermarket executive asked the Dean of his college if the college was able to develop a system to capture information automatically at the checkout counter, the Dean turned down the project. A classmate of Norman’s overheard the conversation and mentioned it to him.

Norman was intrigued by the project and quit his job to work on it. Thinking back to his Boy Scout days, Norman thought the dots and dashes from Morse code could provide a starting point. He converted the dots and dashes into thin and thick lines. He applied for and was awarded a patent with his classmate.

The patent was found to be commercially infeasible and the patent was sold, eventually to RCA. RCA was also unsuccessful with the patent and it expired. The problem was that scanner technologies had not reached a level of maturity to make the code usable.

Norman took a job with IBM and tried to interest them in the code but to no avail. Meanwhile, RCA interested the National Association of Food Chains, and an ad hoc group was formed to develop a scanning/code system. This got IBM interested and Norman was assigned to work on the project. Eventually, IBM beat out RCA and Norman played a vital role in the development of the Universal Product Code (UPC).

Norman was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George H.W. Bush and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He died at the age of 91 from Alzheimer’s disease.

Beginnings are often the product of many people as was the case with the UPC. But the spark that ignites the beginning often comes from a simple person with inspiration. The timing of beginnings is also a key factor. The concept that Norman developed ultimately had to wait for further development of scanning technology. Beginnings can often follow many twisted paths.

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“An invention has to make sense in the world it finishes in, not in the world it started.” – Tim O’Reilly (Originator of the term open source)

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