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Barcode History

A Brief Summary of Barcode History

Barcode history has its roots in the Great Depression. It has evolved from a punch card system, designed to speed the purchasing process, to the modern barcodes we see on every product imaginable. The original punch cards proved to be too expensive and the idea was abandoned by its inventor. More than a decade later the barcode as we know it took shape in its simplest form. The original or prototype system used ultraviolet ink but it had a propensity for fading and therefore not feasible; it was also fairly expensive and not economically viable.

The basic idea for the barcode came from Morse code but the dots where extended into lines that alternated black and white in a parallel fashion, and this is still the case today. The original method of scanning the barcode to identify the product was accomplished through high wattage light bulbs, 500 watts to start with, and was used in conjunction with a film industry photomultiplier. This increased the intensity of the light and made the scanning easier for the time being. As more and more companies needed to cut costs and wanted a system for inventory, more technology needed to be invented to make the system feasible.

As the barcode history progressed, more ideas and innovations were developed and implemented. The parallel lines we recognize as barcodes were not the only form of identification used in the development of barcodes. These are categorized as 2D barcodes or a matrix code. These complex codes were represented in patterns of dots, circles, and a variety and blending of geometric shapes. The complexity of the shapes allows this system to contain more data in a code, but wasn’t used nearly as much as linear barcodes or 1D barcodes. These kinds of barcodes can be found in cellular phone applications such as encoding URLs and images, as well as purchased ticket information for movies and sporting events on a cellular phone.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that barcodes were scanned with a laser, a helium neon laser to be exact. At first only a single laser was used to scan the barcode but soon the addition of other lasers at separate angles were added to make the process more efficient and easier to use. The laser interprets the width of the black lines; each number has its own specific width. The white spaces tell the laser were one number ends and the next begins. Any string of numbers in any order or length can be scanned against a database of information to account for inventory, sales and purchases. Today we use a standardized 11 digit code that identifies any unique product. This code is referred to as the UPC, or Universal Product Code.

This was put into practice in 1973 as a test by the Kroger Corporation and it used a system of “bull’s eye” patterns instead of the parallel line patterns we are used to. The system proved unusable as the printed codes were often smeared and could not be read.

One year later the IBM system of barcode lines was adopted and the modern barcode history was born. These barcodes are now used for absolutely everything we purchase from virtually any industry from new cars to new computers – and from baseball tickets to surfing the web with our cellular phones and PDAs. There are few parts of our lives that are not touched by a barcode; they have become an integral part of our everyday lives.