Everything we buy has a bar code – how was it first developed?

In 1949 Norman Woodland, an engineer, recognised the value of being able to automatically collect product information at supermarket checkouts. He gave up his job in Philadelphia as an academic and moved to Florida where he settled on a beach developing his ideas by drawing patterns in the sand. A keen Boy Scout he started with dot-dash patterns of the Morse Code. To make them easily detectable he drew the dots and dashes down with his finger tips to create the code with wide and thin lines – the bar code. He shared the idea with his friend Bernard Silver with whom he embarked on the development of a bar code reader. They patented their results in 1952. The application of the code and reader awaited the emergence of modern computers to process the data collected during which time the patent ran out. In 1971 IBM, for whom Woodland then worked, suddenly realised that they had as an employee the inventor of the bar code and reader. They immediately launched him on the development of a full scale computer driven data collection system which is now the dominant Universal Product Code System. The first item scanned was a packet of chewing gum in an Ohio supermarket at 8.01am on June 26th 1974. Silver died in 1963 aged only 38. Woodland was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1992. He died in New Jersey, aged 93.

The lesson to be learned

Innovations to be of commercial value have to take place at the right time. Without the resources and structures to implement and support them they are of very little immediate value. The bar code awaited the arrival of the modern computer system for its potential as a world changing innovation to be realised. The inventors failed to benefit leaving the large computer corporations of the 1970s to reap the harvest. The ILAB Process ensures that issues surrounding the timliness of an innovation are considered before committing time and resources to development. Had the ILAB Process been available to Silver and Woodland they could have saved themselves time and money, and even delayed patenting the subsequent introduction of their idea until the time was right. It would have transformed their lives.

Innovation Lab enables organisations implant the advantages of continuous innovation into the day including a commercial analysis of the viability of good ideas. Contact us today to hear how we can help your business to be more innovative and more successful.

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