The History of Barcodes

For more than four decades, barcodes have helped companies, large and small, more efficiently and accurately identify, track and inventory a variety of products, assets, supplies and more.

Here’s a glimpse into the history of the barcode we all know today.

1932: With grocery stores and supermarkets looking for an easier way to track products sold and reconcile inventories, Wallace Flint, a Harvard business student, proposes a punch-card system, similar to the one developed for the 1890 U.S. Census. This idea never came to fruition, as the system was expensive and cumbersome.

1948: Bernard Silver, a graduate student at Drexel Institute, overhears the president of a major food company and a dean discussing research on automatically collecting product information at the supermarket checkout. Silver relays what he had heard to his friend and classmate, Norman Joseph Woodland. Fascinated by this idea, Woodland begins conducting research.

1949: Woodland and Silver file for a patent describing both the linear (borrowing elements from Morse code and movie soundtrack technologies) and bull’s-eye barcode systems.

1952: Woodland and Silver build the first barcode reader. That same year, the patent for the barcode system is granted.

1962: Philco purchases the patent, which it later sold to RCA. 1967: Association of American Railroads begins using barcodes to ID railroad cars. This system comprises blue and red reflective stripes attached to the side of the cars, encoding a six-digit company identifier and a four-digit car number.

1969: Computer Identics Corporation installs the first true barcode systems at General Motors and General Trading Company facilities.

1970: The National Association of Food Chains (NAFC) establishes the Ad-Hoc Committee for U.S. Supermarkets on a Uniform Grocery-Product Code to set barcode development guidelines.

1972: RCA begins an 18-month test of a bull’s-eye barcode system in a Kroger store in Cincinnati.

1973: The Universal Product Code (UPC) is introduced, setting the stage for barcodes to take off.

1974: At a Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio, a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum is the first retail product sold using a barcode scanner.

1984: 33 percent of grocery stores are equipped with barcode scanners.

1994: QR Codes are created by Toyota subsidiary, Denso Wave, to assist in more quickly tracking vehicles and parts.

2004: 80 to 90 percent of the top 500 companies in the United States use barcodes, according to Fortune magazine.