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)?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In mid-1970s, the NAFC established the U.S. Supermarket Ad Hoc Committee on a Uniform Grocery Product Code, which set guidelines for barcode development and created a symbol selection subcommittee to help standardize the approach. In cooperation with consulting firm McKinsey & Co., they developed a standardized 11-digit code to identify any product. The committee then sent out a contract tender to develop a barcode system to print and read the code. The request went to Singer, National Cash Register (NCR), Litton Industries, RCA, Pitney-Bowes, IBM and many others. A wide variety of barcode approaches were studied, including linear codes, RCA's bullseye concentric circle code, starburst patterns and others.
In the spring of 1971 RCA demonstrated their bullseye code at another industry meeting. IBM executives at the meeting noticed the crowds at the RCA booth and immediately developed their own system. IBM marketing specialist Alec Jablonover remembered that the company still employed Woodland, and he established a new facility in North Carolina to lead development.
In July 1972 RCA began an eighteen-month test in a Kroger store in Cincinnati. Barcodes were printed on small pieces of adhesive paper, and attached by hand by store employees when they were adding price tags. The code proved to have a serious problem. During printing, presses sometimes smear ink in the direction the paper is running, rendering the code unreadable in most orientations. A linear code, like the one being developed by Woodland at IBM, however, was printed in the direction of the stripes, so extra ink simply makes the code "taller" while remaining readable, and on 3 April 1973 the IBM UPC was selected by NAFC as their standard. IBM had designed five versions of the UPC symbology for future industry requirements: UPC A, B, C, D, and E.
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.
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):