The History of Barcodes!

Typical barcodes are a series of thin and thick black lines with numbers underneath that you find on consumer packaging. The lines symbolically represent pricing and manufacturer data about the product. Prior to the creation of barcodes, retailers had to add price tags to products and keep track of inventory by hand. Removing this step would save retailers time and money. Though several precursors to barcodes were created, the first barcodes were used in grocery stores after the adoption of the Universal Product Code in 1973. This would eventually allow manufacturers to place the barcodes on product packaging prior to shipping.

Barcode History

Keypunch cards developed by Herman Hollerith to tabulate statistics for the 1890 census, besides being a predecessor to early computer programming, are often thought of as the precursor to the barcode system. Wallace Flint, a 1932 business student wrote a master thesis where he visualized grocery shoppers selecting their items by punching a card and turning it in at the checkout counter. A reader would scan the punched card and purchased goods were delivered to the customer via a conveyor belt in his thesis.

Though never implemented because of the cost of the scanning equipment, Flint’s early thesis inspired others to new ideas about barcodes. Bernard Silver and Joseph Woodland, students at the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia would be the first to come up with a readable barcode system. Woodland overheard a conversation between a food chain president and a Drexel dean whereby the businessman asked for someone to begin research on automatically capturing product data during the checkout process. Woodland and Silver first came up with an idea that used ink patterns that glowed under ultraviolet light.

But it wasn’t until Woodland went to work for IBM that he combined an element used in movie sound systems to read his Morse-code inspired label. The first use of the barcode occurred in 1966, but didn’t see common use until the universal standards were adopted in 1973.

Barcode Uses

Once adopted by grocers in the 1970s, barcodes soon made their way across all product lines and now are in widespread use globally. You’ll find barcodes or variations thereof on most any product you want to purchase at a retail outlet. In manufacturing, barcodes on products indicate manufacturing and inventory information. These barcodes tell what the product is, where it was produced, and where in inventory it can be found. Manufacturers use pre-defined address locations in storage facilities for keeping inventory until shipped. The Post Office uses a barcode to identify mail zip codes. The newest uses of barcodes are the “Quick Response” barcodes that links the barcode to specific data, text or websites.

Barcode Scanners

Retail outlets typically use a laser-type scanner and mirrors to read the barcode and transfer the data from it to a computer where it is decoded and automatically input into the electronic cash register. Most of these lasers use a helium-neon bulb projected in a modulated beam under which the barcode is passed.

Barcode Symbologies

There are many barcode formats or symbologies in use today. The UPC format is defined by a specific set of lines and numbers encoding a 12-digit number. Each number means something specific including manufacturer and product information and a checksum character that validates the information. Many barcode symbologies are used globally. Some of these are the European Article Number or EAN, the International Book Standard Number or ISBN and the International Standard Serial Number, ISSN, used for identifying periodicals.

Other Coding Systems

Other coding systems include Code 39, using a series of numbers and text, POSTNET for the U.S. Post Office zip codes and Codes 128 and 25, each following a specific format. Today the newest barcodes are QR codes, typically a 1-by-1 inch square that contains a series of black and white squares that often look like a maze. These codes are capable of being read by smartphones or wireless devices with a camera and the appropriate software. The UPC-A code, the most common code symbology used today, has a series of 30 thick and thin lines with 29 white spaces between the lines.

Quick Response Codes

Quick Response codes are the latest in a long series of symbologies for the barcode. What makes QR Codes so popular is their ability to encode a text, numbers or a website address by anyone with access to the software. Anyone with a smartphone or camera-equipped mobile device with the correct software application can scan the code, which will provide the data, the text or take them to the website address encoded in the QR code. QR codes are finding widespread use on college campuses in libraries and classes to make it easier for students to find needed information.

For more information on barcodes, special projects underway and QR codes, visit any one of these links:

Barcode History: A brief recap of the history of barcodes with a variety of two dimensional barcode symbologies.

UPC Barcodes: A breakdown of how UPC barcodes work.

Woodland and Silver: The men behind the barcode we see today.

Barcode Applications: A technical paper from Dartmouth on the mathematics of barcodes and their multiple applications.

About Barcodes: The number sequencing involved in creating barcodes.

Barcode Scanners: A brief bit on the laser within the barcode scanner.

Wand Scanner: A student project at Cornell University that details the creation of a wand scanner.

Mail Barcodes: About the barcodes used by the U.S. Post office for zip codes.

Nifty 50: The National Science Foundation provides a brief overview of barcodes.

Mail Uses: The U.S. Post Office Business Mail 101 barcode uses.

Barcodes at the Library of Congress: The Library of Congress catalogs creative works through barcodes, ISBN and ISSN.

Driver’s Licenses: Washington states uses barcodes on its driver licenses.

Bokode Barcode: A new barcode symbology created at MIT.

Evolving Barcode: A packing expert envisions a barcode revolution.

QR Code: Japanese used these to track car parts.

Quick Response Codes: A brief background on the QR code.

QR Codes in Schools: The uses of the QR code in college libraries and classes.

Government QR Code Use: Even the government is using QR codes on its websites.

QR Code Backgrounds: The importance of making QR codes readable.

DOE QR Codes: The U.S. Department of Energy provides a list of QR codes for cities to use in its “Clean Cities” programs.


Content Created and Provided By Charlotte Gray



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