It’s hard to imagine the modern world without barcodes. They are on almost every product we buy, from food to clothes to electronics. We tend to take it for granted that this technology will be there to make our lives easier.
But have you ever wondered about the history of barcode technology and barcode scanners? Have you asked yourself: When was the barcode invented, and how did it become so ubiquitous?
In this article, we’ll answer those questions and take a brief look at the history of this fascinating technology.
What Is a Barcode?
Let’s start by explaining what a barcode is. A barcode (often spelled as two words, ‘bar code’) is a machine-readable representation of data typically used to track inventory or products. Barcodes can be found on almost any consumer product today, from food items in the grocery store to books at the library.
Barcodes work by encoding data in a series of parallel lines of varying widths. The widths of the lines are read by a scanner, which converts them into digital data that a computer can process. Before we delve deeper into the barcode history, here are the most common types:
- The Universal Product Code (UPC), used on almost all retail products in the United States
- The European Article Number (EAN), mainly used in Europe
- International Standard Book Number (ISBN)
A Barcode Scanner
A barcode scanner employs data capture technology to read barcodes on products in retail stores, identification cards, and postal mail. A typical scanner consists of three main components: an optical reader, a decoder, and a cable connecting the two.
The optical reader is the part of the product code scanner that “reads” the lines in a barcode by shining a light on it and converting the reflected light into an electrical signal. This signal is then sent to the decoder, which converts it into digital data that a computer can read.
The First Barcode
We’ll take you back to 1948, the year when the first barcode was invented and created by Bernard Silver, a graduate student at Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia, and Norman Woodland, an inventor and a Drexel alumnus.
The two men came up with the idea while working on a project for a local supermarket chain, whose owner asked the institute for help in developing a way to read product information automatically during checkout.
The barcode history timeline continues with Silver and Woodland realizing that a system of lines and spaces could be used to encode information that a machine could read. They got the idea from Morse code, which uses a series of dots and dashes to represent letters and numbers.
The initial barcode was designed as a “bull’s eye” made up of a series of concentric circles. Silver and Woodland filed a patent for their invention in October 1949, but it was in 1952 that it was patented. However, a powerful 500-watt incandescent bulb they had built into it and a bulky oscilloscope didn’t make the system practical enough for commercial use.
Collins at Sylvania and KarTrak System
The next figure in the turbulent history of barcodes was David Jarett Collins, an engineer at Sylvania Electric Products Inc. He was among the first to realize a need for an automated system to track and identify railroad cars. Working on a problem, he developed a KarTrak ACI (Automatic Car Identification) system in the 1960s.
The system used a pattern of blue and orange reflective stripes applied to the sides of railroad cars. A photoelectric sensor was used to read the stripes and could automatically identify a particular car as it went by.
Collins’s system is yet another piece of the puzzle that answers the question, “When was the barcode invented?” It was a much more efficient and upgraded version of the original Woodland-Silver barcode.
The new method soon became widely accepted and was set as the US standard in 1968. However, it was abandoned in the late 1970s due to technical difficulties, high costs, and poor read accuracy.
A Gamechanger – The Introduction of Lasers
Collins formed the Computer Identics Corporation in search of a new market for his barcode technology. This time he turned to helium-neon lasers, which were invented in 1960 by Theodore Maiman.
Lasers are, obviously, more precise than the 500-watt incandescent bulbs Silver and Woodland were using and can be focused into a very fine beam of light. This made them ideal for reading barcodes.
Much before the first barcode scanner was invented, Collins incorporated a mirror that enabled the code to be reached from multiple angles, making things much easier and more reliable.
Collins and his Computer Identics Corporation installed the new barcode scanning system at a General Motors factory in Flint, Michigan, in 1969 to monitor the production of car axles. This marked the start of barcodes’ commercial journey.
UPC Is Born
After the successful installation at General Motors, the next step was to develop a system to be used on all products in a store. In 1966, the National Association of Food Chains (NAFC) formed a committee to develop such a system.
RCA Corporation was among the committee’s members, and as it purchased the rights to the Woodland-Silver patent, it became one of the main players in the history of the barcode. However, the winner of the unique technology race was IBM, with its linear UPC (universal product code) system, which was ultimately selected as the NAFC standard instead of RCA’s bullseye code.
The UPC was first scanned commercially on June 26, 1974, on packages of Wrigley’s chewing gum at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio. The barcode had finally arrived as the standard for product identification and tracking.
The UPC code consists of 12 digits, with the first six digits identifying the manufacturer, the next five identifying the product, and the last check digit used to verify that the barcode has been read correctly.
The Usage of Barcodes Today
Since the barcode invention and commercial deployment, retail has never been the same. Barcodes have become an integral part of our lives and are used in various ways.
We use them to track inventory, for security purposes, in libraries, print labels, and get information about a product. In addition, barcodes are utilized in many other industries, such as health care, manufacturing, and transportation.
With the development of POS systems (point of sale), barcodes have become even more important, as they are used to price and track products at the time of purchase. In libraries, books’ ISBNs (international standard book numbers) are now barcodes used to keep track of inventory.
Knowing barcodes’ origin, one could barely imagine their usage in hospitals. Yet barcodes are now printed on patients’ wristbands to help reduce medication errors. Barcoded tickets are also widely used at airports and concert venues to help keep track of people and prevent counterfeiting.
Indeed, barcodes have come a long way since their humble beginnings and continue evolving as our needs change.
The Introduction of QR Codes
In the 1990s, barcodes took another leap forward with the introduction of QR codes (also known as matrix-based 2D codes). QR stands for “quick response,” and these two-dimensional barcodes can store more information than traditional barcodes.
They contain the finder, alignment, and timing patterns that serve to determine the code’s orientation, distortion, and coordination. When was the matrix barcode invented, then?
The QR code history started with the Japanese corporation Denso Wave in 1994 when they were developed to track vehicles during the car manufacturing process at Toyota. In the beginning, they were simple 2D codes, but they continued to develop until the Japanese Industrial Standards (JIS) registered QR codes in 1999.
Later, new forms of the code were developed: In 2004, the world welcomed the first micro QR code that could be printed in a small space. Four years later, the iQR code enabled rectangular code modules and boasted 80% higher data capacity.
Finally, FrameQR was developed in 2014 and brought a “canvas area” to the code. This allowed companies to add branding and design elements to their codes more freely.
Thanks to those who invented the barcode, we can now use QR technology to store website URLs, contact information, and small amounts of text. It can also be used to trigger actions, such as opening a URL in your browser or adding a contact to your address book.
The Future of Barcodes
As barcodes continue to evolve, we can expect to see even more uses for them in our everyday lives. Now that we know the answer to the “How long have barcodes been around?” question, we can only imagine what the future holds for this technology.
With the advent of cloud-based inventory management software, barcodes are becoming even more important for managing products and tracking inventory in real time, no matter where you are.
We are also likely to see more uses for QR codes as they become more widely adopted. So, whether you’re using a barcode to keep track of your inventory or scanning a QR code to get information about a product, there’s no doubt that these little symbols are here to stay.
A combination of barcodes and barcode scanners is critical to managing inventory for businesses of all sizes, especially in the grocery industry. With a long history that dates back to 1948, barcodes have come a long way, and they continue to evolve as our needs change.
Laser technology made it possible to read barcodes much faster, and the QR code was introduced in the 1990s to store even more information. Today, barcodes are used in many industries, such as health care, manufacturing, and transportation. We hope you won’t take them for granted the next time you see them.
In this article, we explored who created the barcode and how its history brought it to its important place in business today.