Barcodes: Past & Present

The very first barcode was designed and invented in 1948. The barcode’s design was similar to that of a bullseye. It was the proud invention of Norman J Woodland and Bernard Silver, who were both students of Drexel University. Their prime focus was to provide innovative solutions to the various complexities and problems in the supermarket industry, which at the time, was in dire need of a method that could make inventory management convenient and more practical. This also included making customer checkouts easy, simple and more efficient.

Both students were given the patent for their barcode in 1952. In a nutshell, the barcode proved to be a useful invention, but its practicality was limited to the lab—it did not serve to be a productive measure at a large scale, primarily because of the limitations of technology at that time.

However, during the 1960s, The Association of American Railroads endorsed a project for a linear barcode, which was more practical. The barcode was designed by Sylvania (Needham, Massachusetts). The system was named KarTrak ACI with ACI being short for (Automatic Car Identification).

The KarTrak system was a big machine, the size of a refrigerator. The system activated as soon as the train approached. It would then shine a light (500 watts), on each of the cars and the sensors installed on the machine would then capture and interpret the reflections with the data being fed directly to a computer.

The KarTrak system was a big success and and by the start of 1975, almost all US rail cars installed the KarTrak system. But the KarTrak system was shut down just 3 years after its success due to a plethora or reasons, which included inaccurate barcode readings, poor maintenance, high cost and railways going out of commission.

Laser Barcodes

At the peak KarTrak’s glory, David J. Collins, the inventor of the KarTrak system and MIT graduate, grew a bit frustrated as Sylvania wasn’t up for incorporating the practicality of the technology behind KarTrak into other areas of interest, mainly, other markets. After giving up persuading Sylvania, Collins quit and initiated a new venture named Computer Identics Corporation.

His company incorporated the use of helium-neon lasers, which were ridiculously cost-effective. The lasers were used to illuminate different barcodes. And because barcodes could only be ready from a single direction, Collins designed and manufactured a motorized apparatus for his laser barcode reader so that barcodes could be scanned from numerous directions.

This was a breakthrough in barcode tracking and scanning in terms of efficiency, performance and reliability. His invention also enabled the scanner to read labels that succumbed partial damage.

This new, innovative and highly practical barcode system soon became famous and a big part of General Motor’s plant in Pontiac, Michigan.

Coming Back to the Present

Barcodes are everywhere today, anywhere you look in store you will see products labeled with a barcode. Barcodes have become the ultimate source of tracking each and every single product moving in and out of warehouses and landing in the hand of the end user.

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