The barcode has had a major technological transformation on retail shopping, allowing speedier checkouts, more accurate inventory, and many other advantages, saving businesses billions of dollars per year, worldwide. The beginning of this revolution started many years prior (see my other posting about the history of the barcode if you are interested), but the first transactional item was scanned 40 years ago today.
With photographers and reporters looking on, at 8:01 am on June 26, 1974 the first transactional item was scanned by Sharon Buchanan at a Marsh's supermarket in Troy, Ohio. It was a 10 pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum, which rang up for $0.67 US. This item was not specifically selected to be the first, it just happened to be the first item lifted from the cart by Clyde Dawson.
This first package of gum that was scanned is currently displayed at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, as shown in the picture below.[1, 2]
Happy anniversary barcode! 40 years of changing the face of retail and inventory management!
Whether seeing them at a grocery store, a retail outlet, a warehouse, on a newspaper, on letters, packages sent via couriers, seeing a QR code on a menu or advertisement, or viewing them as a sign of the coming of the apocalypse, the barcode is a ubiquitous sight in our modern society (Google even celebrated the invention of the barcode on Oct. 7, 2009 with this google doodle on their front page).
This invention has revolutionized commerce, shipping and logistics around the world, with more uses being discovered every day. Well over half a million companies use the UPC product code in the US, and the UPC code is scanned over 10 billion times every day.
Given how prevalent this technology has become in our daily lives, perhaps it’s good to know a little about the barcode and its history, which follows.
What is a Barcode (or Bar Code)?
Technically, from what I’ve been able to determine, "bar code" is properly spelled and defined as 2 separate words, however its common and colloquial use is the one word designation.
A barcode is simply described as an optical machine-readable representation of alpha, numeric, or alphanumeric data represented by by a series of bars and spaces. Originally barcodes represented data in the widths (bars) and spacing’s of parallel lines. These kinds of barcodes are often referred to as linear barcodes, or 1d barcodes and are still one of the most widely used symbologies today.
Later inventions have developed differing patterns, colors and shapes to represent the data. These are often referred to as 2d barcodes (or array barcodes), which can represent much more data than previously designed linear barcodes. Some symbologies can even contain encrypted or hidden data, allowing information to only be transferred to authorized devices with the correct decoding information or keys.
A short video describing how a barcode works is shown below:
A Short History of the Barcode
The early history of the barcode began in 1932 where a small group of students, headed by Wallace Flint, son of a grocery wholesaler, at the Harvard University Graduate School of Administration proposed a project in his Master’s thesis that would automate the purchase, selection and delivery of merchandise to the customer, while also updating inventory records for the retail outlet. This proposed system consisted of punch cards and flow-racks to deliver products into the customer’s hands and to assist in the automated handling of the retail trade. The concept was economically not feasible at the time; however the advantages of an automated handling in the retail trade (by means of product coding) were described for the first time here globally[4a, 4b].
The actual invention of the barcode (or bar code) was by Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland in 1948.
The story goes that Bernard Silver overheard the president of a local food chain talking to the dean of students to undertake research to develop a system to automatically read product information during checkout. Silver told Woodland about the request he overheard, and the two of them started working they started working on a variety of systems.
Their first idea consisted of patterns of ink that would glow under ultraviolet light. Woodland and Silver built a device which worked, but the system had problems with ink instability and it was expensive to print the patterns. Woodland was convinced that there was a workable solution and quit graduate school to devote himself to the problem.
“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.’ ”
That consequential pass was merely the beginning. “Only seconds later,” Mr. Woodland continued, “I took my four fingers — they were still in the sand — and I swept them around into a full circle.”
Mr. Woodland favored the circular pattern for its omnidirectionality: a checkout clerk, he reasoned, could scan a product without regard for its orientation.
Woodland and Silver proceeded to invent the first true barcode system based on two already invented technologies, that of David Morse (telegraphy) and Lee De Forest (movie soundtrack system) and applied for a patent for a “Classifying Apparatus and Method”, which was awarded on Oct. 7, 1952, United States patent 2,612,994 (US2612994 A). They hooked up the RCA component to an oscilloscope and moved a paper marked with lines across a thin beam from the light source. As the paper moved the oscilloscope moved in step with the marks on the moving paper. The paper began to catch fire a few times, but the pair had proved that a device could be created that electronically read the printed pattern.
This method, however, languished for years as the technology depended on an immense scanner equipped with a 500-watt light, which was quite expensive and unwieldy and certainly not practical for the proposed solution.
In 1962, at the age of 38, Bernard Silver was killed in an automobile accident, before ever seeing the commercial implementation of his idea. He was inducted in 2011 to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Woodland died from the effects of Alzheimer's disease on December 9, 2012, in Edgewater, New Jersey. He was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2011, and in 1992 he was awarded the National Medal of Technology from President George H. W. Bush for his contribution to barcode technology.
Neither man made much money from this world-changing invention. Reportedly Woodland sold his original patent for $15,000 - a rather sum in comparison to the billions of dollars that are generated via this technology today.
After Silver and Woodland, between the 1950s and early 1960s there were several inventors who proposed the construction of “human readable” characters which would be readable by an automatic scanner, but still readable by the human eye. Alfred Ferrier Pierre, Gerard Feissel Henri, and Joseph Lesueur Marc Charles applied for a US patent in Apr 17, 1961 (patent number 3,309,567, US 3309667 A), titled “Character identifying arrangement”, which represents every one of the digits 0 to 9 by seven parallel bars.
Unfortunately this method has generally proved unworkable as the space required to fulfill both the purpose of being human readable and machine scannable would be quite large for longer numbers.
In the later part of the 1960s, railroad companies began searching for a system through which they could automatically identify rail cars and through the efforts of the Association of American Railroads (AAR), a number of automatic car identification (ACI) systems were developed by different companies.
David Collins managed the development of the KarTrak Automatic Car Identification (ADC) system at Sylvannia/GTE. This was the first commercial use of a linear bar code. KarTrak reads red, white, blue and black bars, mounted on rail cars, to track their location.
By 1967 the KarTrak system was so successful that all North American railroads adopted the plan, followed soon after by the American Trucking Association, who put the codes on all trailers shipped by rail. At its high point, some seven years after its start, approximately 2,000,000 labeled cars, owned by 130 railroads, were spread over 135,000 miles of track. Most of the scanners were in place, the recording system was up and running, and the entire system was working the way it was planned. [Punch Cards To Bar Codes, 1997, p. 50, Benjamin Nelson] (photo by John Keys, found here.)
By 1974, 95 percent of U.S. freight cars had been labeled. [The Bar Code Book, 1991, p. 13, Roger C. Palmer]
A good write-up for the earliest commercial implementation of a barcode labeled product and scanner system can be found on Wikipedia, quoted below:
In 1966 the National Association of Food Chains (NAFC) held a meeting where they discussed the idea of automated checkout systems. RCA had purchased rights to the original Woodland patent, attended the meeting and initiated an internal project to develop a system based on the bullseye code. The Kroger grocery chain volunteered to test it.
Here is a video of Fran Beck, the RCA Technical Manager that created the Bullseye scanning system tested in the Kroger Kenwood Plaza store in 1972. He describes the experience of designing the system itself including some of the non-checkout components.
At 8:01 AM on June 26th, 1974 the first UPC scanner scanned its first item, a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum, described as follows:
In June 1974, one of the first UPC scanner, made by NCR Corp. (which was then called National Cash Register Co), was installed at Marsh's supermarket in Troy, Ohio. On June 26, 1974 at 8:01 a.m, Sharon Buchanan, a checker at Marsh's supermarket in Troy, Ohio scanned first product with a bar code. It was a 10-pack (10 5-stick packets) of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit chewing gum. The cash register rang up total of 67 cents for that first item. The pack of gum wasn't specially designated to be the first scanned product. It just happened to be the first item lifted from the cart by a shopper, Clyde Dawson. Today, the pack of gum is on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.
The two pictures following are pictures of one of the first 10 NCR scanners installed at Marsh's, from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History
Decades of ideas and billions of dollars in investment became a practical reality. The use of scanners in retail outlets grew slowly at first, as a minimum of 85% of all products would have to carry the codes before the system could pay off. In 1978 less than 1% of grocery stores nationwide had scanners, and by 1981 the figure was 10%. Three years later that number had grown to 33% and today most are equipped.
Much more could be said about this industry, its people and its technologies, but these are well beyond the scope of the purpose of this posting. A later posting will cover the types of barcodes and their years of invention and implementation.
I hope you enjoyed reading and visiting this blog.
Barcode References for this article (in no particular order):
Document Revision History:
5/23/2014: Added Oregon State link and revised citations as there were 2 's, renamed second one to [4a] to go with [4b]
Barcode Brian Blog
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