Morse Code and Sand


Although most of you have never heard of  N. Joseph Woodland, he has made a huge impact in the world in general and libraries in particular.  You see, Woodland was the inventor of the barcode.  Barcodes have changed the way we check out books, conduct inventory and buy groceries to name a few.  Many of us can’t even remember checking out a book without a barcode the old fashioned way or standing in lane 4 at Harris Teeter while the cashier types in each item’s number by hand into the computer.  Can you imagine how long you would have to wait in line at Walmart without any barcodes!?

Joseph Woodland, 91, passed away on December 14th, 2012.  His idea for the barcode was first patented nearly 60 years ago because of his involvement with the Boy Scouts.  See those guys are always prepared!  Woodland and a fellow graduate student were inspired when a supermarket executive to the campus of Drexel University.  The executive spoke about wanting to automate and streamline the checkout process in order to reduce the customer’s wait time.  Woodland and his friend began working on this problem and eventually in the winter of 1978-1949 Woodland found a solution while visiting his grandparents in Miami Beach.


He was sitting on a chair on the beach and as a former Boy Scout, he was familiar with Morse code. He told Smithsonian magazine in 1999:

“What I’m going to tell you sounds like a fairy tale.  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. I said: ‘Golly! Now I have four lines, and they could be wide lines and narrow lines instead of dots and dashes.’ ”

So that’s what happened and the rest, as they say, is history.  Barcodes have been used in many industries across the world and now we all know that we owe it all to  Mr. Woodland.

~ Brian Trippodo ~

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Filed under Events, Librarians Can Be Fun Too, Library, News, Technical Services

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