Respect For The Masters: Joe Woodland

Remembering Joe Woodland, the Man Who Invented the Bar Code

The way Joe Woodland told it, he was the only one in the jury room who thought the guy was innocent.

Eleven other jurors were ready to convict, but Woodland insisted they had misunderstood the letter of the law, and eventually, he coaxed them back into the courtroom for another talk with the judge. When they returned to jury room, all eleven changed their minds.

Then, with this case settled, Woodland returned to the court the following day for another trial, and it happened again. Eleven jurors disagreed with him, and after a time, he turned them all around — or at least most of the them. “You did it to me once, Woodland,” said a juror who, in Woodland’s telling of the tale, served alongside him on both trials. “You won’t do it again.”

Joe Woodland — who died last week at the age of 91 — is the man who dreamt up what became the Universal Product Code, the ubiquitous bar code used to ring up your groceries every time you visit the supermarket. For Doug Antonelli and Walt Metz, engineers who worked with Woodland on the code at IBM in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Woodland’s chestnut of a jury-room story epitomized the man and his work — however apocryphal the story might be.

Woodland had a mind, they say, that operated in the most precise of ways — and he was willing to take the time needed to push others toward his way of thinking. He first cooked up the UPC idea in the late 1940s, drawing a code in the sand while sitting on a Florida beach, and nearly three decades would pass before the first bar code was scanned at a grocery store in Troy, Ohio.

“You can believe it,” says Antonelli, referring to the jury-room story. “That’s the kind of guy he was.”

But at the same time, Antonelli adds, Woodland was more than willing to get behind an idea that came from somewhere else. “He wasn’t one of these Not-Invented-Here kind of guys. If someone could tell him ways to improve what his theory was, he would accept it.”

Indeed, the black-and-white rectangular bar code that eventually turned up on hundreds of millions of products was quite different from Woodland’s original design, which looked more like a bull’s eye. The bar code as we known it today was designed by an IBM engineer named George Laurer — according to another ex-IBMer, Bill Selmeier, who has compiled an extensive oral history of the project — and hundreds of others played smaller roles in its creation.

George Laurer remembers Woodland as “a salesman more than an engineer.” But Selmeier thought of him as an “engineer/businessman” — a sharp mind with the wherewithal to bring his ideas to fruition. Woodland had a habit of walking into a colleague’s office and immediately heading for the white board, where he would lay down the mathematics needed to support his latest argument. The lead variable was always an “r” with a “w” subscript — short for “Woodland.” When he wasn’t around, colleagues took to calling him “R Sub W.”

He was a problem solver, a man of extreme curiosity. “If you were sitting around the dinner table with him,” says Richard Ruby, who lived three houses down from Woodland for many years, “you could tell his mind was on something else.”

Woodland was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and as The New York Times detailed in its recent obituary, he liked to say that the bar code would never have happened if not for his father’s deep-seeded concerns over the Atlantic City mafia. As an undergraduate at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, Woodland developed a new means of delivering music to elevators and he planned to build a business around it, but his father wouldn’t allow it, insisting that elevator music was controlled by the mob. So, Woodland returned to Drexel for a master’s degree, and it was there the seeds were sown for his most famous idea.

It all began with another graduate student named Bernard Silver, who had overheard a supermarket exec asking a Drexel dean if he could help develop a way of encoding data onto products. Silver took the problem to Woodland — who had spent the war with the Manhattan Project at Oakridge National Laboratory, apparently as a kind of historian for the A bomb project — and the two of them went to work on a solution. They had burned through several ideas when Woodland started drawing in the sand on a visit to his grandparents’ home on Miami Beach.

“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 told Smithsonian Magazine in 1999. “I said: ‘Golly! Now I have four lines, and they could be wide lines and narrow lines instead of dots and dashes.’”

This quickly turned into a bull’s eye. “Only seconds later,” he remembered, “I took my four fingers — they were still in the sand — and I swept them around into a full circle.”

Woodland and Silver filed for a patent on the idea in 1949. It was granted in 1952. And in between, Woodwood went to work for IBM in upstate New York, hoping Big Blue would buy into the project. At one point, he and Silver built a crude prototype that could read their bull’s eye code using a 500-watt incandescent bulb and an oscilloscope, but it would be years before optical scanning technology and computer hardware caught up with their idea.

In the meantime, with IBM unwilling to meet their price, they sold the patent to Philco — an early battery, radio, and television company. The price was $15,000.

By the late 60s, Philo has sold the patent on to RCA, and Woodland had moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where he was part of IBM’s Store System group — the team that produced the UPC. In the early 70s, multiple companies floated product code proposals — including RCA, whose code was based Woodland’s original bull’s eye — but it was IBM’s rectangular code that won out. The bull’s eye was attractive because it let you scan the code from any angle, but according to Doug Antonelli — who worked alongside Woodland at IBM in Raleigh — the design lost out at least part because it was harder to print.

“A bull’s eye is more omnidirectional,” Antonelli remembers. “But the printing caused all sorts of problems. The ink would bleed in a way that you couldn’t get the quality control you needed with the bull’s eye.” With the rectangular code, you could set up the printer to bleed in the same direction as the lines, eliminating the problem.

IBM’s scanning system — the IBM 3660 — officially arrived in 1973, offering not only scanners and terminals but a kind of early local area network for connecting them all to a central controller, and the likes of RCA and NCR produced scanners of their own. But perhaps the bigger task was convincing a world of companies to put the code on their products, and Woodland played a role here as well.

Selmeier remembers a particularly testy issue involving one of the country’s most recognizable brands: Coca-Cola. The bar code is essentially a series of lines of varying widths, and an optical scanner — powered by a red laser — is used to read the distance between the edge of each line. When IBM’s hardware arrived, Selmeier remembers, it could read the code off a bar of Camay soap even as it was thrown — at speed — across the face of the scanner. But because the laser was red, he says, there was a problem reading codes from the sort of red background found on a Coke can. It was Woodland, Selmeier says, who worked with Coke and Reynolds Metals — the company that made the cans — to find a solution: the silver bars that eventually appeared on America’s favorite soft drink.

“That was pure Joe Woodland,” Selmeier says. “I looked at Joe as the strategist. Joe realized that if things were going to happen, you needed to get the right people involved. You needed to get the right problems solved.”

But as Woodland’s little jury room anecdote indicates, his push for solutions could also rub people the wrong way. “People either liked him a lot or hated him even more,” says George Laurer. Laurer liked him, but the way Woodland told it, that second trial ended in a hung jury.

In the end, he came out ahead. Well ahead. By The Times‘ estimation, more than five billion bar codes are scanned each day.

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