This Day in Death

12.9.12: N. Joseph Woodland, Inventor of the Barcode – DEAD!

Filed under: Dead —James @ 7:10 pm December 18, 2012

MAD_UPCMAD in the 70s: Come for the sharp commentary about rampant consumerism, stay for another David Berkowitz fold-in.


Being an inventor in 2012 has got to be borderline impossible. I’ve already got Prozac and ketchup bottles that open from the bottom, good luck convincing me I need anything else to lead a fulfilling life. Americans were probably a dramatically softer sell in 1949, though, when the afterglow of that whole “killing Hitler” thing started to fade and we desperately needed new stuff to keep us interested until mail order pornography became viable. That’s when N. Joseph Woodland swooped in and invented the now-ubiquitous UPC barcode, creating an entirely new system that would allow data for millions of commercial products to be easily encoded into a scannable symbol. It also gave every middle class college student the perfect idea for a super hardcore neck tattoo that’s really gonna blow the minds of a few of those conformos down at the Quad. Because corporations.

What would happen, Mr. Woodland wondered one day, if Morse code, with its elegant simplicity and limitless combinatorial potential, were adapted graphically? He began trailing his fingers idly through the sand.

“What I’m going to tell you sounds like a fairy tale,” Mr. Woodland told Smithsonian magazine in 1999. “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.’ ”

Wow. That’s a productive day at the beach. Normally I just put on my tightest “Bikini Inspector” t-shirt and look for snail shells to throw at on-duty lifeguards. Who the hell do they think they are, anyway, sitting all high up in the air like that? Oh, I’m sorry, I thought we left England to get *away* from kings, your majesty!

Source: The New York Times

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