Picture a grocery store without all those fancy cash registers, tracking mechanisms for product inventory and self-checkout counters. Now envision the long lines to pay for groceries because the cashier has to manually enter each price by hand. Sounds like a nightmare right? Without all those technological gadgets being hooked up to a network of computers and databases, grocery shipments would arrive haphazardly. The store would not know right away that ketchup needed to be ordered or discern when someone is shoplifting food items. Just think, it was all because of the creation of the barcode that we have to thank for faster grocery check-out lines and those new fancy self-checkout stations.
The use of barcodes in the retail industry all started back in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s when the head of a grocery store chain wanted a technical college to figure out a way to acquire product information when a customer checked out groceries. This company president wanted to find a simple way to track his inventory. Two technical students took the idea and ran with it.
Before long, these two students had a working prototype using drawn patterns made from special inks that could only be seen by an ultraviolet light. The concept worked but was riddled with problems. So back to the drawing board, a code made out of a series of lines was implemented next. It was based on Morse Code and movie equipment.
Next this technical duo built the very first bar code reader. It was big and bulky and used an incandescent light bulb, photo multiplier tube from some movie equipment and an oscilloscope. A piece of paper with lines drawn on it was passed over the incandescent light source and the oscilloscope “read” the lines and thus, a barcode was born.
Unfortunately, this very first barcode technology was unwieldy and not practical to reproduce on a grand scale. It was not until the 1960’s when lasers were more common and the integrated circuit was born that the barcode idea really got off the ground.
A committee from the grocery retail industry was created to study the new barcode technology and decide how they were going to integrate it into stores. They made several guidelines that would have to be met in order to determine the feasibility of the barcode. First, the barcode had to be read from any direction and angle. The job of the cashier had to be made easier, not harder, with this new technology. In addition, the labels used to print the barcodes on had to be inexpensive and easy to do.
These barcodes were circles in the beginning, concentric like a bulls-eye. However, problems with printing these barcode labels arose. Ink would smear, obliterating the circles and machines could not scan the smears. Soon, other technical companies got into the act to create a more effective and efficient barcode. They strove to standardize everything from the ink colors to the paper and equipment used to scan the barcodes. This new standard was called the UPC or Universal Product Code and it is still in use today.