A lesson for aspiring inventors

Norman Joseph Woodland
Norman Joseph Woodland 

The New York Times rarely honours inventors with a front-page obituary. But it gave one to N. Joseph Woodland, who received the original patent on bar coding in 1952 for the principle he had developed with his college classmate Bernard Silver.

Woodland's epiphany came as he sat on a beach, running his fingers through the sand, contemplating ways to encode data about products. It struck him that he could adopt Morse code, which he had learned as a Boy Scout, visually - in a series of lines of varying width that could be read with a scanner.

The ensuing invention would eventually find its way onto almost every product you buy, but the story of how it became such a staggering success has a number of counterintuitive lessons about invention.

First, it's sometimes good to take the money. Woodland and Silver shared only $15,000 for the patent, a pittance considering the savings it would later yield for the economy. But the first scanner that could read bar codes, and thus make their invention commercially feasible, wasn't introduced until 1974, long after their patent had expired. In the meantime, Woodland joined the staff of IBM Corp. He hoped it would buy the invention and turn it into a marketable product, but it never did. (In 1952, Woodland and Silver sold the patent to Philco, which in turn sold it to RCA.) Most patents generate no income at all, and very few can match a steady professional job with a retirement plan at a leading company.

Second, although Woodland continued to develop coding systems at IBM, none of them was a breakthrough comparable to his original bar code. Most ideas simply aren't transformative. A corollary is that no matter how brilliant and original a concept may be, sometimes it's so advanced that missing pieces of a successful prototype take decades to appear. Shoes with air-filled soles were patented as early as 1882; a century and 150 patents later, Nike introduced a model that wouldn't deflate like its predecessors. The original concept of the fax machine dates to 1843, as the engineering professor and author Henry Petroski has pointed out.

It may be a blessing that inventors often can't foresee additional breakthroughs that will be needed to make their ideas work. They might otherwise be discouraged. In this case, bar- code scanning depended on the invention of the laser, which didn't appear until the 1960s. Laser printers, which are needed to generate custom bar codes, weren't available until the 1980s. Electronic circuitry also had to be miniaturised before scanning could enter retailing and other non-industrial settings.

Software lagged, too. The Luhn algorithm, which catches the most common errors of electronic reading and human transcription, wasn't patented until 1960. The product codes of books and magazines are checked by the more advanced Verhoeff algorithm, introduced in 1969. That development was essential for another notable innovation, Jeff Bezos, the company's founder, chose books as its first product category in 1994 because - thanks to the International Standard Book Number made possible by the bar code - books were the largest category of coded product in the world.

Third, the Woodland-Silver invention also needed what might be called a standardisation entrepreneur. If the great majority of retailers and manufacturers couldn't agree on a standard format, multiple codes for different vendors would have become a packaging nightmare. So the Boston supermarket executive Alan Haberman brought representatives of leading companies together to choose the final version of the bar code, which became known as the Universal Product Code.

Finally, the influence of Woodland's innovation would extend well beyond simply cutting costs, and in unexpected ways. Artifacts, as the historian of technology Langdon Winner has suggested, have politics, and scanners radically changed power relationships.

The UPC began as a simple tool for accounting and inventory control. But the savviest retailers, led by Wal-Mart Stores, realised that with growing computer power the code could do much more. Retail executives could gather superior intelligence about prices and sales, and experiment rapidly and efficiently. With this knowledge, and with the scale of its purchases providing immense leverage, Wal-Mart could lean on vendors for ever-lower prices, raising its profit margin and making possible further expansion.

In practice, Wal-Mart's demands were also enough to force companies producing profitably in the U.S. to outsource manufacturing to low-wage Asian factories. Liberal and conservative economists may disagree on whether this change has benefited the U.S., but they agree that the UPC and the concentration of retailing flipped the historic relationship between manufacturers and sellers.

Inventors, like scientists and writers, are often unpleasantly surprised by the consequences of their ideas. The inventor of the modern reclining chair, a Hungarian named Anton Lorenz, sincerely believed that recliners were heart-saving health chairs rather than the symbols of sedentary living that they have become.

Woodland's invention has undoubtedly enhanced my own life, but I have to confess to reservations. As a reader in the New York Public Library, I was inspired by Asher Durand's superb painting of friendship in nature, "Kindred Spirits." In 2005, library executives auctioned it to raise funds, no doubt expecting that some angel would acquire it for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it would continue to be open to millions near its Hudson Valley setting. Instead the winning bidder was the Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, who has made it a centrepiece of the Crystal Bridges Museum she created in Bentonville, Ark., population 35,300 and more than two hours from the nearest big city.

All this happened because an engineer versed in Morse code ran his fingers in the sand on a beach one day. Perhaps the real lesson is to be careful what you dream about.

Edward Tenner is author of "Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences" and "Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity."