Barcoding: A Brief History


We’ve all been to the grocery store.  You know the scenario.  It could almost be a sitcom situation.  The checkout line seems to stretch all the way to the dairy section.  Of course, out of an endless line of registers, only three are open.  Our unsuspecting shopper sighs as he sees an overflowing cart pull into the lane he was eyeing, its operator—a mother with four kids— almost hidden by mounds of groceries.  The man in front of her is taking forever trying to find the right credit card.  He fumbles around his wallet for an eternity.  Our poor protagonist happens to glance over at the self-checkout; no one in sight!  He looks away hurriedly, his last encounter burning in his mind, but the temptation is too strong.  “Maybe I will actually figure it out this time,” he thinks to himself.  “Besides with no one in line, even if it takes all day, I’ll still make it home quicker.”  He inches his way out of the checkout line and makes his way to the automatic cashier.  Twenty minutes later, everyone in the checkout line is gone, but he is still standing at the self checkout, fumbling to find the barcode on broccoli.  The camera cuts to closing time and there he is, still trying to reason with the machine, which is unfortunately now speaking Spanish.

You’ve done it too.  Maybe your ice cream hasn’t pooled into a liquid before you’re done, but who hasn’t been through self-checkout without needing the assistance of the closest grocer at least once?  What is it with those pesky barcodes?  Every grocery store seems to have the same strip of black and white stripes that the cashier has no trouble scanning.  For the rest of us, barcoding remains a relative mystery.  Though seemingly a space age technology, barcoding has been around for quite some time.  Its roots stretch far into the past. Barcoding’s ascent to near universal usage was a long, difficult struggle.  In the end, implementation of bar codes was accomplished through the efforts of many different visionaries.

Barcoding had an innocuous, and almost happenstance beginning.  In 1948, a young graduate student named Bernard Silver overheard a conversation between a food chain executive and the dean of the Drexel Institute of Technology.  The grocery president was in the middle of begging the dean to undertake research to develop a system to record product information at checkout when Silver happened upon the two.  The dean rejected the notion, but the idea fired Silver’s imagination.  Silver mentioned it to his friend Joseph Woodland, and the two immediately went to work on the project.  Their first idea was to use luminescent ink that would glow under ultra-violet light, but this solution proved not to be cost efficient.  Woodland received inspiration for his next idea from Morris Code.  When asked about the code later in life, Woodland replied: “I just extended the dots and dashes downwards and made narrow lines and wide lines out of them.”  After extensive experimentation (mostly in Woodland’s living room), in which they changed the pattern to a round, bulls-eye shape, Woodland and Silver would file for a patent on their invention in 1949.  Unfortunately, the technology necessary to operate barcodes was years ahead of the two dreamers.  Despite repeated attempts by Woodland’s new employer, IBM, to buy the patent, the two inventors sold their patent to Philco, who turned around and sold it to RCA.

The next advancement in barcode technology did not come from Woodland, IBM, or RCA.  In fact, a completely unrelated system was created by MIT grad David J. Collins, who worked for Sylvania Corp.  In his undergraduate days, Collins had worked for a railroad company.  He knew that keeping track of freight cars (which are lent between freight companies) is a dizzyingly difficult task.  Collins set out to develop a way to automatically identify each car with a unique and distinct code.  He developed a series of blue and orange reflective strips that represented the digits 0 through 9.  Collins’s system was employed on a wide scale, but it too proved economically unfeasible.  A recession in the 1970s left the railroad industry staggering, and consequently unable to pay for the expensive system.  Meanwhile, Collins quit Sylvania and formed his own company: Computer Identics.  Collins’s new company quickly developed the first true system of barcoding, which implemented the new technology of lasers, and tested it on two manufacturing companies.  The Computer Identics system sparked a product war between the tech powerhouses RCA and IBM.  Both companies raced to create a standardized barcode. RCA’s bulls-eye code was first used by the Kroger’s grocery chain, but it was IBM’s linear code that won the battle.  On April 3rd, 1973, an industry-wide committee chose to adopt the UPC (Universal Product Code) of IBM as the industry standard barcode for grocery stores.

Though the technology had come a long way from Joseph Woodland’s living room, the price tag on barcodes was still big enough for grocery chains to hesitate. The early systems often cost more than 200,000 dollars. In order for barcodes to save stores money, they needed to be used for 85 percent of the store’s products. The costly investment paid off. Barcodes revolutionized the grocery industry.  They cut down on labor, lines, and time.  A grocery store with barcode scanners was able to process goods at twice the rate of the traditional one.  By 1984, over a third of American stores had barcodes, and the number continued to grow.

Barcodes have many applications besides the retail industry.  They can be applied to truck parts, boats, hospital ID bracelets, lumber, and much more.  Not only do barcodes increase processing speed, but they also provide reliable, accurate tracking of inventory.  Suppose for an instance that you have a large file room filled with volume upon volume of data that you need to organize, or even just maintain.  Imagine how easy it would be to find documents with the use of a barcode system.  If it sounds beyond the scope of your company, we can help.  Tarheel Imaging categorizes files for you.   We can store all your papers, no matter how many files are involved.  With our time-tested method of barcoding, we can remove your documents from storage, transport them to our secure warehouse, and organize them efficiently.  Whenever you need a file, we quickly locate it using barcodes and deliver straight to your office.  With a fax, you could have your documents in a matter of minutes.  Barcodes might waste your time at self-checkout, but contact Tarheel Imaging and we’ll have your documents categorized and delivered before your ice cream melts.