The history of barcodes

in Tech on 7th July 2020

Barcodes are used for a variety of ways to suit today’s needs. Most retail stores use product barcodes for their various products, airlines use them for passengers and hospitals for cataloguing a variety of medical supplies, medication, patient records, and even newborn babies.

It may seem that barcodes have been around for a long time, but they were only conceptualized in the early 1930’s. The use of actual handheld barcode scanner machines and point of sale scanners and product barcodes came about in the 1970’s. A system was proposed by Wallace Flint, a Harvard business student, that would use a punch-card system in order to track items purchased by the customer. This proposition would result in the store being able to track the number of products sold and keep better records of their stock. The Great Depression was just beginning, and resources could not be spent on a system that, at the time, was not essential to the people of the country. 

Bernard Silver, who was a graduate student at Drexel Institute of Technology, overheard the Dean speaking to a supermarket manager who was complaining about the system used. The complaint was a plea to the Dean to find someone who would be willing to find a way to make it easier for him to get clients in and out of his supermarket quicker. The delays at registers were causing a loss of clients, while having to take count of stock regularly cut into profits. His plea fell on deaf ears, but Bernard spoke to a friend and classmate Norman Joseph Woodland, who graduated in 1947. Woodland was fascinated by the idea and began conducting research in 1948. In January 1949, Woodland had an epiphany by drawing lines in the sand, similar too Morse code, and then drawing a circle around it.  This idea would bring about a linear (lined barcodes we see today used on all products being sold in retail) and the bull’s-eye barcodes system that were tested for use. Woodland and Silver filed for a patent in 1949, which was only granted in 1952. They worked on a prototype with the technology they had available and said it “worked to a point”. Aside from it not working completely it was rejected for being “too unstable and expensive”. Most notably lacking at the time, was the correct laser technology that would not be invented until 1960.

In 1966, the Kroger Company sent out a plea to find a way and have “an optical scanner read the price and total the sale”. Many research teams attempted to solve the problem and found methods that hindered more than helped. When researchers found the Woodland and Silver patent, it had the “bull’s-eye” design. They had, at the time, decided this shape would be better as it could be accurately read from all angles. Unfortunately printing the bull’s-eye barcode proved to be a bigger problem. One small imperfection in the bull’s-eye would cause the entire system to fail. One solution was found in a pen design used by astronauts. 

The success of the bull’s-eye barcodes only served to highlight a lack of uniformity in the “barcoding” of products. If it were possible to have one unique code, which could be used to identify a singular product regardless of state, store or country, and have a machine that can read those specific product barcodes, many stores could solve the problem of labeling items themselves. This would eliminate the need to create their own numbering system for products and create an easy method for re-ordering items when needed as well as make the stock taking processes more streamlined. While having a universal coding system for products was an incredible idea for the masses, Manufacturers and Canners did not feel the same way. Cardboard manufacturers were worried that having a code printed on their products could spoil it while Canners did not want the obligation of having to place barcodes on the base of each and every can they produced. 

Although the bull’s-eye system worked, the need for a universal code was greater. The Symbol Committee accepted demonstrations from seven different companies on what was to be the new universal coding system. The Committee gave certain specifications that needed to be met and George Laurer used those specifications to create the product barcodes in the rectangular shape we use today. They proved their barcodes efficiency by having a pitcher throw ashtray’s, with symbols on the bottom, as fast as he could over a scanner. Each one was read correctly. The committee had to make a choice between the already functioning bull’s-eye code and the newly established barcodes. The linear barcode was chosen with a 90% vote of confidence from the members of the committee and was introduced in 1973.  The first item to be scanned and sold was a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum, it was chosen in order to prove that barcodes could be placed on very small products without issue. The success, however, was not as immediate as they had hoped.

It was only when mass merchandisers started using the Universal Product Codes or UPC for short, a 12-digit retail barcode i.e. the codes on every item we use today, that it became a success. Kmart was the first to use it. The value of a barcode has been praised by many, as it assists with moving more consumers through the stores faster, which was one of the initial issues. Additionally, it serves to keep track of stock, which combined with modern technology has allowed computer systems to be integrated into scanner systems and allows for faster stock taking, it also drastically removes the possibility of human error at the point of sale system.

Barcodes have revolutionized and been modernized in todays world. Keep reading articles at to see more.


Smithsonian Mag History of Barcodes

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Categories: Tech