If you look around and pick a random product, chances are, it has a barcode. We may have a rough idea of what the barcode is used for because we have seen it being scanned in a retail store to reveal details of the product such as manufacturer, product description, product code, and product price. However, we rarely put too much thought into how the barcodes came into being and how they work.

Below is a brief history of barcodes and how they work.

Bulls-Eye Barcode

The first barcode was invented in 1948 by Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland who were graduate students at Drexel Institute of Technology. This is after Bernard Silver overheard a conversation between a store executive and the dean of engineering about developing a technology that could capture product information automatically and speed up the check-out process. The two graduate students were fascinated by the idea and began working on their invention.

After a couple of preliminary ideas and drawing inspiration from the morse code, they came up with a barcode in the shape of a bulls-eye. They were granted a patent for their invention in 1952 but the invention took close to twenty years to become commercially viable.

First Application of Barcodes

The first application of the barcode system was in the railroad system. In the 1960s, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) started using the KarTrak Automatic Car Identification system which was designed by David J. Collins, an MIT graduate.

The system used blue and red reflective stripes that were painted on the side of the railroad cars. The stripes contained information about ownership of the railroad cars and an unique car number. Whenever a train approached, the KarTrak barcode reader would read the information on the stripes which would then be printed out on a paper or a magnetic tape. The system gained popularity such that by 1975 almost all railroads in America were using the KarTrak system.

In 1978, the system was abandoned due to poor accuracy and an economic downturn that made many railroads to become bankrupt.

David J. Collins went ahead and created his own company, Computer Identics Corporation so that he could pursue other industrial applications of barcode technology.

Universal Product Code (UPC) Barcodes

Back in 1951, Norman Joseph Woodland was employed by IBM. Together with Bernard Silver, they persuaded IBM to further develop the barcode technology but due to limitations of technology, the invention was not commercially viable at the time. They, therefore, sold their bulls-eye patent to Philadelphia Storage Battery Company, who later sold it to RCA Corporation in 1952.

In 1967, RCA started marketing the bulls-eye barcode to grocery industries beginning their tests in a Kroger store in Cincinnati. Afterward, RCA and IBM were involved in the barcode technology development competition. RCA had the patent but IBM had the original inventor, Norman Joseph Woodland as their staff. Woodland was greatly involved in the development of a linear UPC barcode making IBM emerge as the winner in the technology race.

In 1974, Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum became the first item to be scanned commercially with a UPC barcode marking the turning point of barcode technology. Throughout the 1980s many retail stores adopted barcode scanning technology due to benefits such as:

  1. Faster checkout
  2. Enabled instant price changes
  3. Stores could serve more customers with fewer employees
  4. Improved accuracy in inventory monitoring

Quick Response (QR) Code

In 1994, a Toyota Subsidiary known as Denso Wave created the QR code to enable faster tracking of vehicle parts. QR code is a two-dimensional barcode as it contains symbols and shapes that are two dimensional.  The QR code is also able to hold approximately 7000 characters. This was an improvement to the UPC barcode which is one-dimensional and can hold up to 20 characters.

Another two-dimensional barcode is Aztec which was developed in 1995. It is popular in the transport sector and it is commonly used in planes and train tickets.

Today, barcodes are used across many industries. They are used in hospitals to administer medication, to validate air tickets or movie tickets, advertising, managing inventory, to check out products in the retail industry, and much more.

How do Barcodes work?

A barcode is a machine-readable code that is in form of black and white lines that have varying widths. A barcode scanner is used to read the black and white lines to decode the information contained within the lines and then transmit this information to a computer.

In order to read a barcode, a scanner is directed on to the barcode. The scanner’s LED or laser light shines on the barcode and reflects the light to a photoelectric cell, an electric component that detects light. As the scanner moves over the barcode, the photoelectric cell generates a pattern of on and off impulses which are converted to digital characters by an electronic circuit within the scanner.

The digital characters are then transmitted to a computer system with the product database and used to identify the product. Simply put, barcode scanning is a faster method of inputting alphanumeric characters into a computer system.

Barcodes have revolutionized the processes of many industries. As barcode technology continues to advance, we can be certain that its application will extend to new frontiers far from its initial purpose which was to speed up check-out and manage inventory better.