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Idea ahead of its time

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Many inventions are older than we think, usually because the basic idea was way ahead of the technology needed to exploit it.

A good example is the fax machine. It was patented in 1843, but early machines were bulky, heavy, slow and expensive, and a commercially viable machine did not appear until 1966.

Another invention we now take for granted is the barcode, which received a US patent 60 years ago on 7 October 1952. Four years earlier, Bernard Silver, a graduate student at Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia, had overheard a request from a local food chain that the college should devise a system for automatically reading product information at the checkout. Silver told a fellow graduate student, Norman Woodland, who quit Drexel to work on the problem, convinced that the idea was workable.

In 1949, Woodland and Silver filed a patent application. Their basic symbology was a straight line pattern similar to present day linear bar codes. The design consisted of four white lines on a dark background. The first line was a datum line and the information was coded by the presence or absence of one or more of the three remaining lines.

Although the scheme allowed only seven product classifications, the inventors noted that more could be coded by adding extra lines. For example, 10 lines would allow 1,023 classifications.

But the world was not yet ready for the barcode. The inventors eventually gave up and sold their patent to RCA. After the patent’s expiry in 1969, it took five more years before an industry-wide agreement led to supermarkets adopting barcode technology.

Bernard Silver did not live to see the idea’s commercial success, but Norman Woodland was awarded the US National Medal of Technology in 1992.

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From: Beyond pharmacy blog

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