History of Barcodes

Barcode HistoryHere at barcode.com, we talk about the latest and greatest barcode innovations and how they will affect our lives. However, we seldom discuss the origins of the barcode and how the barcode came to be all that it is today.

Before barcodes were ever dreamed up, grocers often discussed how they needed some way to track their merchandise. It was not until 1948 when Bernard Silver, a graduate student at Drexel overheard a conversation amongst the dean and the president of a large food chain. While the dean turned down the president’s request for a graduate student project involving automated check-out, Silver mentioned the conversation to his friend, Norman Woodland.

Fascinated, Woodland immediately started to think up solutions. After some trials and errors, Woodland came up with a linear barcode that took elements from movie soundtracks and the Morse code. Together, Woodland and Silver continued to develop various barcodes and filed a joint patent on October 20, 1949.

The patent was granted three years later, but they still needed to find a device that could read the barcodes. Realizing that they were a bit ahead of their time, Woodland and Silver tried to sell their patent to Woodland’s employer, IBM, but eventually sold it to Philco in 1962, whom then sold it to RCA in 1971.

23 years had passed, yet there were still no signs of barcodes. It wasn’t until David Collins came along and developed his own company, Computer Identics. Using things he had learned while developing a barcode-like system for railroads, Collins began using lasers, allowing for a laser beam to be absorbed by thin black stripes and reflected by the white spaces. Computer Identics slowly began implementing its system in General Motors and General Trading Company. While these systems proved effective, each barcode only contained two digits, as there was limited inventory at both companies.

Eventually, RCA executives stepped in and attended a grocery industry meeting. Partnering with Kroger grocery chains, RCA showed that a barcoding system could be implemented, but they were pushing for a round, bull’s-eye type barcode, which proved to be difficult to print and scan.

IBM now wanted a piece of the barcode action and realized that the original inventor, Woodland, was still on staff! Although his patent had expired in 1969, he was transferred to IBM’s North Carolina office and played a prominent role in developing what we now refer to as the UPC (Universal Product Code). On April 3, 1973, the UPC transformed barcodes from experimentation to implementation.

Finally, by June 26, 1974, all tests and proposals had been completed and a supermarket in Troy, Ohio sold a pack of gum as the first retail item to be sold with an official UPC and a scanner. From there, well, you know the rest… barcodes are everywhere!

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