The Innovative Symbols – A Brief History of the Barcode

When shopping, you don’t even give them a second thought. Nobody does. And why would they? Barcodes are just a little white square with some black lines, in an insignificant location on the packaging. They have nothing to do with the marketing pizazz of the package, nothing to do with the product itself, all it does as far as the consumer is concerned is allow the product to be scanned at the checkout so it can be paid for. Not exactly the highlight of the shopping experience. However, I don’t think anything has changed the retail environment more than that little obscure white and black square.

Does anyone ever really think about how this all got started? Where and when did this become such a large part of the retail world? Well, I did. I started to realize that everywhere I looked there was some sort of barcode. And today there are so many different types and different uses for them that it is astounding. So let me share with you a short history of how these little stripes of black lines became such a big part of our lives. You might be surprised to see how barcodes entered our everyday lives.

Believe it or not, it all started back in 1948 with a man named Bernard Silver. Mr. Silver was a grad student at the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia. One day he overheard the president of a rather large food chain at the time asking one of the Deans to do some research into a way for some sort of system to read product info during the checkout process. Now you might think, what is so strange about that? That is exactly what the codes are used for today. Sure. But wait, there’s more.

Mr. Silver heard the conversation and decided he was going to work on this himself. So Silver told one of his friends, Norman Joseph Woodland about what he had heard and they started to work on a variety of systems. They came up with all sorts of ideas and plans. None of which resemble what we use today. But after working on the project for some time, Woodland became inspired by Morse Code. After some thought he finally came up with an idea and he scribbled his very first barcode in the sand at a beach by taking the Morse Code and extending the dots and dashes of the code downward making long narrow and wide lines out of them. Of course now they had to come up with some way for a machine or device to read the lines. Back at their “think-tank” which was Woodland’s fathers Florida apartment they designed a device that was adapted from technology used in the film industry. Using devices designed to read optical soundtracks in movies, he attached a 500 watt light bulb to it that would shine through the paper containing the code onto a RCA 935 photomultiplier tube from a movie projector. He later figured out that his system would work much better if the code were printed in a circle rather than a line so it could be read from any angle. His idea worked. Soon, in 1949, Woodland and Silver filed for a patent and were later awarded one in 1952 for a “Classifying Apparatus and Method”. This included the linear and bull’s-eye (circular) printing patterns as well as the machine needed to read the codes. Barcodes were born.

Now considering where the thought for this invention came from, you would think that once the patent was achieved the codes would be put to use in the grocery industry. But that is not what happened, and to be honest, the barcodes were far off at this point from being used in any retail setting. After gaining the patent it was sold to a company named Philco. They were a big name back then in the realm of electronics and electronic consumer devices. Such things as air conditioners, refrigerators, car radios, etc.. were all things that Philco was known for. I’m sure Philco saw something in the invention that caused them to purchase the patent. But what they saw was dollar signs because they turned around and sold the patent to RCA later the same year they purchased it.

During this time, the railroad industry was working on a system of their own. Because railroad cars were traveling nation-wide and were often transferred from one line to another, there needed to be a way to track the cars. A man by the name of David J Collins was well aware of this having just spent his undergraduate days working for the Pennsylvania Railroad. After graduating he went to work for Sylvania who was working on Military computer projects. When Collins began work at Sylvania he tried his hand at a project that would solve the railroads problems. He worked on a system that was slightly different than the current barcode technology of the time. He used reflective colored stripes that could be read by computers that Sylvania already had produced and tested. By 1967 the railroad had his system installed in about 95% of all the trains in service. By this time Collins saw the great potential for his system or barcode systems in general and took this idea to the higher ups at Sylvania. Much to Collins’ dismay they denied exploring other avenues because they figured they were making money from the railway system and decided to put their money and efforts into that. Collins then quit Sylvania and formed his own company called Computer Identics Corporation.

After working on the systems for a couple years, Collins and his company made some advancement in the barcode field of study. For example they added lasers which were just coming into their own as a technology at the time, to read the codes. And you have to keep in mind, computers at the time were still rather large. So when Computer Identics Corporation were able to make their systems a tiny bit smaller than what was possible at the time it was a big step. And that was what they were doing. They were working on streamlining the process and the machinery. At that time, the Spring of 1966 they installed their first two systems. One went into a General Motors plant in Pontiac, Michigan, where it was used to monitor the distribution of automobile axle units. The other was installed in General Trading Company’s distribution facility in Carlsbad, California. It was used to help direct shipments on conveyor systems to the proper loading bay doors.

This had worked to prove that the system was indeed feasible in an industrial setting. But this was still very far off from the barcoding systems that we are used to today. It was RCA who helped to move the technology into that direction. Because although the Computer Identics Corporation barcodes were working, they were only able to store two digits worth of data. What RCA was working on would require much more. In 1966 they had attended a grocery industry meeting in which the barcode system had been discussed. This helped to show RCA that there was a need for the technology and pushed them into spending the money to develop the technology.

It wasn’t until 1971 that RCA had developed something worth trying to sell. They had worked with grocery industry experts and others to come up with a standardized system that stored more information, was easy to print and reproduce, could be scanned from any angle, and could be read from a distance. RCA was working with the bull’s-eye system which was the circular printed pattern. They thought this was the best way to go. However during their long and extensive testing it was found that what made the codes readable from any angle, also made printing an issue. Because of the rounded print pattern, the ink could sometimes smear and when that happened it made the code unreadable.

Industry competition in that day was as fierce as it is today. And with a new technology on the horizon that could possibly revolutionize an industry, many companies were involved. The two that stood out however were RCA and IBM, but IBM had a trump card. They had one of the original inventors on their staff. Back in the 1951 Norman Joseph Woodland took a job with IBM and in 1971 when RCA was taking the lead role in the barcode game IBM stepped up with their new entry into the barcode pool: the Universal Product Code. More commonly known as the UPC.

The major benefit that the UPC had over the bull’s-eye code was that instead of a circular pattern, it was printed in a linear fashion. This meant that if ink did happen to smear during the printing process, it would smear in the direction of the lines, making the code still readable. However by this time many different companies who had all entered the game all had their own proprietary codes and designs. But at a time when business demanded standardization, IBM’s more readily readable and more easily produced UPC won out. But the code was not all that needed to be standardized. This meant that the machines reading the codes would also need to be standardized. So a movement was started to make sure this would take place. This meant that companies would have to give up on the ways they all designated and organized their products. It was not easy, but the amount of money that companies would save in almost every area eventually convinced them to do so. And in an effort to continue this trend a new Uniform Code Council (UCC) was formed.

Over the next few years the UPC code worked its way into almost every facet of the retail industry. Every store and manufacturer in the country has adopted the UPC. If they haven’t it is because they have adopted another form of coding, but it all has ties directly to the invention of the UPC. Every industry has some way of coding their product or parts of a process that they perform. It makes sense when you consider how everything ties into computers. By doing so things are easier tracked, inventoried and handled. This not only saves money, but obviously saves time, resources and manpower. Today you have many codes entering the mainstream. And with every code there has to be a system to read and manage the codes.

The system created all those years ago never made any of the original inventors rich. But they had a major hand in changing the way a whole country, and even better yet, a whole world does business. There is not an area of business that is not somehow touched by barcodes. In 1992 Woodland was given the National Medal of Technology by President Bush. This may be the only official recognition given to Woodland. But he can stand tall knowing in his heart what he has done. He has changed the world of business forever in a way that no one else has or ever will.

So where will barcodes take us? It is a simple assumption to make that we will see barcodes in many different products as time goes on. People have made them tatoos. People have changed their names to resemble their name converted to a barcode symbology. With technology getting ever smaller, and microchips being embedded in many different things, barcodes will surely follow them. When you consider the amount of data that can be stored in the string of lines, and where they can be placed it is not surprising to think of where they could end up. We have chips inserted in pets to track them and in pens to record when certain words are written. The data needs to be stored and converted. And not all this information is public domain. People are always looking for ways to keep things private in an age where more and more is being exposed. Maybe barcodes will play a role. Or maybe they will just be used in a more simple manner. Just a data recording method, much like they are today. Maybe the technology to read them continues to be available to everybody like today in common cell phones. What uses can you think of for these? I bet the possibilities are endless.