Against the Odds: How the Bar Code Has Become Part of Everyday Life

By Neil Wilkof

His passing away on December 9, 2012, at the age of 91, attracted some media attention, including in The New York Times on December 13, 2012 here and in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, in its most recent edition. The “he” is N. Joseph Woodland, and he was a co-inventor (along with Bernard Silver) of one of the fundamental technological building blocks of modern commercial life — the bar code. barcodeA retrospective on the history of their invention and its ultimate adoption provides a fascinating view of how the time line for exploitation may sometimes transcend not simply years, but even decades.

The article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, “How the Bar Code Took Over the World”, by Drake Bennett and Jim Aley, here, describes how in 1948 a supermarket executive approached the Drexel Institute of Technology (now Drexel University) in Philadelphia here with a request: could they develop a technology that could encode information about his products. As the story goes, graduate student Silver overheard the request and told his fellow graduate student friend Woodland about it. The two of them then took up the task.

Woodland, in particular, became so involved that he dropped out of graduate school, went down to his father’s apartment in Florida, and sought to find a solution. He found it, it is told, while sitting on no less than Miami Beach, literally dragging his fingers through the sand. And then-Eureka–he found the solution, a series of lines of different widths, which functioned like a form of Morse Code, but with lines of different lengths rather than dots and dashes. As Woodland is reported to have observed, “I just extended the dots and dashes downwards and made narrow lines and wide lines out of them.” And so the bar code is said to have born.

A U.S. patent application was filed in 1949 in the name of Silver and Woodland (entitled “Classifying Apparatus and Method”. Bearing the number 2612994, it was registered in October 1952.  The patent here is summarized on Wikipedia here as “describ[ing] both the linear and bullseye printing patterns, as well as the mechanical and electronic systems needed to read the code.”  Woodland went on to IBM in 1951 and tried to interest the company in the invention. The company’s was response that while the idea was both feasible and interesting, the hardware requirements were too far advanced for the company to make a material investment. Silver and Woodland ultimately sold the patent in 1961 to Philco for $15,000. It appears that this amount was all that the two inventors ever earned from the invention (Silver passed away in 1963).

Widescale commercial application for the bar code only occurred in the 1970s. Before then, there had been some up-take by the railroad industry, but no real exploitation by the retail and produce industries, despite the fact that it was they who had approached Drexel two decades before with the original idea. In fact, the first item ever scanned was a packet of chewing gum in a Ohio supermarket in my state of Ohio in 1974. From then and until now, the use of the bar code has become well-nigh ubiquitous for all items except raw produce. It is said that currently five billion items are scanned each day.

In addition to this historical narrative, interesting in its own right, the question is raised whether the bar code saga has insights for the process of invention, up-take and commercialization in our own time. After all, a preoccupation of those who study invention and innovation is how good ideas are ultimately translated into commercial reality. While neither Silver nor Woodland enjoyed much of the monetary fruits of their invention (indeed, the current ubiquity of the bar code suggests something to the fate of Tim Berners-Lee here and his contribution to the development of the world-wide web), does the ultimate success of the bar code offer any guideposts for similar developments today?

The authors of the Businessweek article suggest that the answer is “yes”. In particular, they point to its success in becoming a dominant standard and attribute three main reasons for this:

1. “Simplicity and reliability that overcomes habit”–In other words, the bar code technology is considered simple; moreover, it works in a way that overcomes the inertia to stay with the then current technology (in this case, entering information on the supermarket cash register).
2. “A governing body to establish standards”–A single barcode system, selected by a consortium of retailers and manufacturers, namely the UPC system by IBM, was selected. It probably did not hurt that Woodland had helped develop the IBM system.
3.“An extravagant, surprising, and often expensive effort to seed the market”— The example given was the so-called Fresno Drop in 1958 here, where all residents of that California city were sent a credit card. It is claimed that the seeding of the bar code followed the rise of Walmart and its use of bar codes to build its legendary distribution system.
4. “Openness”–While not as “essential” as the first three elements, openness may definitely help. The idea here is to allow everyone to develop their own specific version of the technology (à la Google enabling Asian phone manufacturers to adopt the Android system by providing an open-source version that could be altered).

I am not fully convinced that these elements flow from the bar code experience or are being grafted on to them, which would thereby retrospectively validate their significance. In any event, given the enormous success of the bar code, it seems that more research is merited to explain more fully how it was that the patent-protected invention enjoyed little success during its own time, but led to a later explosion of applications.

Any takers?

[This post originally appeared at IP finance.]

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