• Barcode Ireland Team

A brief history of barcodes

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

How the barcode changed the world.

Bull's eye barcode resemblance. Barcode origin.

A brief history of barcodes

The first barcode symbology was not the UPC linear one we are all familiar with today but

a ‘Bulls-eye’ barcode so named because it was a series of concentric circles designed to be scanned from any direction. Developed by two college students, Norman Joseph ‘Joe” Woodland and Bernard Silver in response to the need of retailers to speed up purchasing at check out and to track huge inventories in grocery stores fast evolving into supermarkets.

The bull’s-eye barcode

Woodland’s epiphany came whilst sitting on a Miami beach. Inspired by the Morse Code he had learned as a Boy Scout:

I remember I was thinking about dots and dashes when I poked my four fingers into the sand and, for whatever reason—I didn’t know—I pulled my hand toward me and I had four lines. I said ‘Golly! Now I have four lines and they could be wide lines and narrow lines, instead of dots and dashes. Now I have a better chance of finding the doggone thing.’ Then, only seconds later, I took my four fingers—they were still in the sand—and I swept them round into a circle.

In 1949 Woodland and Silver applied for a patent of a bull’s-eye barcode system which they called their ‘Classifying Apparatus and Method’ (granted in 1952). The bull’s-eye barcode worked up to a point but it took up a lot of space and the round format limited the amount of data that could be encoded. It was also awkward for the retailer to read requiring a large bright light, that is, until the miniaturised laser beam was developed years later.

In the 1950’s Woodland began working for IBM and lobbied for them to buy the patent. IBM thought it an interesting and feasible idea but the technology to process the resulting data was sometime off in the future. They did however offer to buy the patent but their offer was not accepted and instead sold to Philco in 1962 for $15,000 and later sold on to RCA.

The first practical use of the barcode

Interestingly, the very first practical application of the barcode was in the railroad system that fed retail and manufacturing. In the 1960’s the Association of American Railroads (AAR) began using a system called KAR TRAK ACI (Automatic Car Identification) developed by David Collins an MIT graduate and one of their engineers.

The concept was based on using blue and red reflective stripes painted on steel plates that were riveted in various combinations on the sides of railroad cars. There were 13 horizontal labels on every plate and much like barcodes had “start” and “stop” labels and check digits. Various arrangements of the stripes encoded a 4-digit railroad company identifier and 6-digit car number. As a railcar moved past a rail yard scanner the information was read.

This system was abandoned 10 years later as there was a downturn in the economy and the system was deemed unreliable because of persistent errors in reading due to a build up of dirt on the plates.

By the 1980’s radio tags became more popular in tracking rail cars.

The first UPC barcode

The RCA patent remained dormant until 1966 when the US National Association of Food Chains (NAFC) and the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) along with consulting firm McKinsey & Co, asked for submissions for a UPC code, a Universal Product Code that would be common to all products in supermarkets. It would encode product, manufacturer and pricing information.

In 1972 RCA conducted an 18 month trial of their bull’s-eye barcode in a Kroger supermarket in Cincinnati. The barcode was printed on small pieces of adhesive paper and attached to the products by hand. A major drawback soon became apparent in that whilst in theory the circular barcode could be read from any direction, in practice printers smudged the ink making the barcode unreadable from any direction.

Back at IBM, George Laurer with the help of Woodland, developed a more user friendly digitally scannable barcode - the UPC (Universal Product Code) that we are familiar with today. Initially they tried to resurrect Woodlands bull’s-eye format however it was considered too unwieldily for mass markets. After a number of refinements the rectangle with bars and stripes emerged and the issue of smudging during printing was solved as any bleeding of the lines just made the barcode taller. At the same time, another group of IBM engineers developed a prototype barcode scanner using optics and lasers.

After years of dissension and many committees later on 3 April 1973 IBM’s UPC system was finally selected as the NAFC standard.

On June 26 1974 in Marsh’s supermarket in Troy Ohio, the first item to be commercially scanned with a UPC barcode by cashier Sharon Buchanan was a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum. Although there were many other items in first customer Clyde Dawson’s basket, this item was chosen specifically to demonstrate that the barcode could be printed and read on even the smallest grocery item.

This proved to be the turning point for the acceptance of the barcode in the grocery industry.

By automating the tracking of inventory, supermarkets could start to introduce just-in-time deliveries. What was once a huge, logistically complicated and diversified operation now became easy to manage and track. The barcode system essentially gave rise to the the general retailer.

Walmart, one of the earlier adopters of barcode technology, is the largest general retailer on the planet largely because it has continued to invest in state-of-the-art computer-driven inventory and logistics management - technology such as the barcode that made it easy, cost and time-efficient to manage the movement of a colossal range of products.

Consumers benefited as UPC scanning generated efficiencies and productivity improvements that led to lower costs and greater customer service.

Though the inspiration for the barcode was in response to the supermarkets need for technology that would speed up the checkout and inventory control, perhaps its greatest value to business and industry is that it provided hard, statistical analysis of what sells and what does not. It has transformed market research, providing a detailed database of consumers wants and tastes and has made production lines more efficient.

So, next time you are perusing the shelves in the supermarket or scanning your groceries at the cashier, consider the brilliance of this tiny piece of engineering that has transformed the manufacturing and retail industries.

Barcode Ireland packages contain both UPC-A and EAN-13 barcodes that work internationally. To get yours, simply go to our Buy page www.barcodeireland.ie/buy, or contact us on info@barcodeireland.ie or through the contact form on our website www.barcodeireland.ie/contact and let Barcode Ireland help you.






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