Former Raleigh resident, co-creator of bar code, dies at age 91

By MATT CAULDERDecember 13, 2012 

— N. Joseph Woodland, a longtime Raleigh resident and co-creator of the bar code that revolutionized check-out lines everywhere, died Sunday at his home in Edgewater, N.J. He was 91.

Woodland lived in the Raleigh area from 1971 until 2006, when he moved to New Jersey to be closer to family.

It was during his time in Raleigh that he worked at IBM’s Research Triangle Park facility developing the Universal Product Code system now used world-wide.

Woodland received many honors in his later life for the invention of the UPC, including the National Medal of Technology awarded by President George H.W. Bush in 1992 and his induction into the New Jersey and national inventors halls of fame.

“It was wonderful for Dad to be honored in that way, but the recognition was always secondary to the product being used,” said his daughter, Susan Woodland, of New York City.

She remembers grocery shopping with her father after the codes started to show up in stores.

“It was really fun the first couple of years when I was in college in the ’70s, seeing grocery store chains start to adopt it,” Susan Woodland said. “Nobody understood what the numbers were and how the bars were read.”

She was excited to hear her father explain to people how the technology worked at cocktail parties and talk to grocers about the differences between the various manufacturers’ UPC reading devices and how they could improve them.

Woodland was born in Atlantic City, N.J., on Sept 6, 1921. He graduated from Atlantic City High School in 1939 and went on to study mechanical engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia. At the start of World War II, he enlisted in the Army, where he worked as a historian for the Manhattan Project.

He returned to Drexel after leaving the Army in 1945 and graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1947. Woodland then accepted a teaching position with Drexel while pursuing his MBA.

Woodland had conceived of the modern UPC long before its completion in 1971. While at Drexel in 1948, a friend and colleague, Bernard Silver, overheard the president of Food Fair supermarket discussing the need for a system to automatically track prices of food items at the register. Silver and Woodland decided to tackle the grocer’s problem.

Woodland left his teaching position and moved to his grandfather’s home in Miami, where he worked on it.

“I was sitting in a beach chair,” he said in a 2004 interview. “I stuck my fingers in the sand, and I drew my hand to me. I left three or four furrows in the sand. I said, ‘Wow. I could have wide lines and narrow lines.’ That was the invention.”

He patented the idea with Silver in 1952. Woodland took a job with IBM hoping to pursue the UPC, but it did not catch on until almost 20 years later.

Woodland is survived by his wife of 61 years, Jacqueline, his daughters Betsy and Susan, his brother David and his granddaughter Ella.

Caulder: 919-829-4758

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