December 13, 2012

The man who invented the bar code also "perfected a system for delivering elevator music efficiently."

N. Joseph Woodland was an undergraduate in the 1940s, when he got the idea of "record[ing] 15 simultaneous audio tracks on 35-millimeter film stock" ("existing methods... relied on LPs and reel-to-reel tapes").
He planned to pursue the project commercially, but his father, who had come of age in “Boardwalk Empire”-era Atlantic City, forbade it: elevator music, he said, was controlled by the mob, and no son of his was going to come within spitting distance.
Elevator music... and the mob. It's all so evil! Then Woodland, as a grad student, heard about the need to encode product data efficiently. He dropped out of grad school, "holed up at his grandparents’ home in Miami Beach," and "spent the winter of 1948-49 in a chair in the sand, thinking." He thought about Morse code, which he'd learned in the Boy Scouts.
“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.’ ”
N. Joseph Woodland died last Sunday at the age of 91.

21 comments:

Unknown said...

The story of how Muzak came to be a mob company is told in passing in Fortune's Formula, still the best popular book on the Kelly criterion yet written.

Hagar said...

Back when, the owner of the firm I was working for installed Muzak in our offices while I was gone.
When I got back, I stood it until about 10 o'clock, but then got a stepladder and a pair of pliers and cut the wires to the two speakers nearest my space.

harrogate said...

Elevator Music, the Mob, and Efficiency Model. Ha. None of these things is unlike the other.

Amartel said...

Here's some random info about bar codes via the internet. If you look at the first three numbers below the bars, you can figure out where the item was made.
For example:
00 - 09 USA or CANADA
30 - 37 FRANCE
40 - 44 GERMANY
49 JAPAN
50 UK
471 TAIWAN
690-692 CHINA

Hagar said...

Muzak is only appropriate in places where mental defectives work.

And supermarket music I believ has been created to give young people with absolutely no talent for music an opportunity to make money for college tuition. It is intended to make dazed and numb so that you will just grab items at random off the shelves.
Always make up a shopping list at home and do not deviate fom it!

Lem said...

The guy who invented the code may have died but the mark of the beast lives on ;)



Wally Kalbacken said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SunnyJ said...

Interesting that he interacted with the universe the way most of our primary inventors have...close observation of what appears to be unrelated actions/data.

Newton, Einstein etc. just watching while their neuro synapse interact to connect the dots...admittedly faster than the rest of us.

SunnyJ said...

Interesting that he interacted with the universe the way most of our primary inventors have...close observation of what appears to be unrelated actions/data.

Newton, Einstein etc. just watching while their neuro synapse interact to connect the dots...admittedly faster than the rest of us.

edutcher said...

Since most people hate canned music, he went into something that made people's lives easier.

Although it's automated a lot of jobs into oblivion.

and what Sunny said. Reminds me of what my old discrete math prof said about mathematics and patterns.

NotquiteunBuckley said...

He didn't build that sand.

bagoh20 said...

Let's go to the beach and get to work!

Sam L. said...

I was in a bank in the '90s that had a radio tuned to an elevator music station. The tune seemed familiar.

Took a while to recognize Stairway To Heaven.

Did you know the words to the Gilligan's Island theme song can be sung to STH? Called Stairway to Gilligan's Island, I heard it on Dr. Demento's radio show.

Methadras said...

Code39 anyone?

m stone said...

I recall as a youth being in a grocery store on 1950s Long Island and observing the bar codes on products being discussed at a register. It was probably two decades before establishments had the capability of reading them, but someone had the foresight to begin imprinting them, whether it was Woodland's version or not.

Some people literally change our world.

Donna B. said...

The only thing worse than elevator music is telephone hold music.

From Inwood said...

And he didn’t get a government grant!

What the heck, he just encouraged retailers to cut costs & sell goods cheaper to people who don’t really need them, thus helping to create the disposable society. I mean it’s like, ya know, he helped destroy The Planet, gurgle, gurgle....

AlanKH said...

Didn't the Mayans predict elevator music?

From Inwood said...

unknown @ 4:45 PM Thurs

Thanks for the tip on the Kelly Criterion book. Have ordered a copy for myself & for a gift.

That kind of comment is why I always read Althouse & all the comments except by the usual trolls.





Mark said...

I wonder if his tombstone will have a UPC symbol instead of his name.

Mark said...

I wonder if his tombstone will have a UPC symbol instead of his name.