Barcodes Celebrate their 43rd Birthday!

Today marks the 43rd birthday of the barcode! This is a special occasion for our team here at Barcoding, Inc. We not only derive our namesake from the barcode, but much of our work today would not be possible without this first innovation. We often talk about new and future technological breakthroughs, but, today, we would like to spend some time on the history of the barcode.


On this day forty-three years ago, the first official barcode was scanned at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio in the form of a Universal Product Code (UPC). It was on the back of a 10-pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum. However, the idea of the barcode started before the UPC, and has an even longer history.

In 1948, the president of a major food company met with a dean at the Engineering College of Drexel University. He wanted to know if the College would sponsor a graduate student project involving automated check-out—grocers were looking for a way to track their merchandise. The dean didn’t take the project, but a Drexel graduate student, Bernard Silver, overheard the conversation. Silver brought this information to his friend and colleague, Norman Joseph Woodland.

Woodland took up his own research on the idea of automated check-outs and created a linear barcode system, borrowing elements from both Morse Code and movie soundtrack technologies. In 1949, he and Silver filed a joint patent for their new system, and three years later, they created the first ever barcode reader.

Barcodes were not an instant hit though, and the two men sold the patent to Philco in 1962, whom then sold it to RCA in 1971. RCA eventually partnered with the Kroger grocery chain to utilize the barcode, but they wanted a round, bull’s eye type barcode. These types of barcodes had proven difficult to print and scan.

At the same time, IBM was working on their own barcode system. With the help of Woodland, who had actually been working for IBM since his early barcode research, and an engineer named George Laurer, the company created the UPC in 1973. Laurer decided to ditch the bull’s eye design and instead created a system of lines, leading to the UPC lines we see today. “When you run a circle through a high-speed press, there are parts that are going to get smeared,” he says, “so I came up with my own code.”

Timeline Highlights

1948: Silver overhears the discussion involving research on automatically collecting product information at supermarket checkouts. He brings this information to Woodland, and the two begin conducting their own research.

1952: Woodland and Silver build the world’s first ever barcode reader, and, the same year, their patent for both the linear and bull’s eye barcodes is granted.

1973: The Universal Product Code (UPC) is introduced, allowing barcodes to be used on a large scale.

1984: 33 percent of all grocery stores in the U.S. are equipped with barcode scanners.

2004: According to Fortune magazine, 80 to 90 percent of the top 500 companies in the U.S. utilize barcodes at some stage in their business.

You can see a larger timeline with even more barcode history here.

Barcodes Today

According to CBS’s Money Watch, about 2 billion barcodes are now scanned each day throughout the world. Additionally, barcodes helped make today’s Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology possible. IDTechEX predicts that the RFID market’s value will hit $32 billion by 2024.

How will you celebrate the barcodes’ birthday? Share with us on Facebook or Twitter.

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