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Scanners, Labels, and Systems: A History of the Barcode

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Scanners, Labels, and Barcode Systems

Barcodes have made great advancements since their roots in the Great Depression. It has transformed from a punch card system used to speed up the purchasing process to the modern bar-and-space barcodes we see today on a variety of consumer goods. Punch cards proved to be too expensive and the idea was abandoned by their inventor. More than a decade later, the present-day barcode took shape. With data created in the form of a small-scale code, processing and inventory maintenance would be proven more efficient.


Barcodes were first introduced in 1949 by Normal Joseph Woodland, a 27-year-old Drexel Institute of Technology educator and graduate student. Drexel student, Bernard Silver, had approached Woodland with an idea that he had overheard from the president of a food chain. He had asked the dean of the university to conduct research on an efficient way to automatically obtain product information at check-out. Intrigued by the concept, Woodland brainstormed solutions. He considered Morse code to be an ideal model for its use of dashes and dots to represent information. One day while relaxing at the beach, Woodland began to draw extended dashes and dots in the sand. Thin lines were created from dots and thicker lines from dashes. From this series of symbols, the linear barcode was created. On October 7, 1952, Woodland and his partner received a patent for their invention. However, the barcode would not be used for commercial purposes until fifteen years later.

Commercial Use

While barcodes are best known for their use on a variety of products, they are also used for other business purposes. Barcodes were first placed on the sides of railroad freight cars. As the car went past a scanner, it could be identified. This system was not successful as some freight cars bounced past the scanner, providing poor results. Today, barcodes can be found in many aspects of business. Rental car businesses often use barcodes on the car bumpers to keep track of their vehicles. Airlines place barcodes on passenger luggage to prevent personal belongings from becoming lost. Researchers attach individual barcodes to bees and other living creatures to track mating and migration habits. Barcodes can even be found on human beings. Fashion models are often stamped with a barcode to ensure that they are well organized for shows and fitted with the proper attire. The most widespread use of the barcode is for consumer products. The Universal Product Code (UPC) was a response by the U.S. grocery industry in the 1970s to the demand of an expedient grocery checkout process.


Developers of the UPC believed that there would be less than ten thousand companies that would utilize the barcode system. Today, there are more than one million businesses in over one hundred countries around the world that use UPC as a method of identifying products and consumer goods. While barcodes continue to be used in many industries, the future of automatic identification looks to the way of radio frequency (RFID). Small transmitters do not require a direct line to the barcode scanner and are not subject to degradation via exposure. Radio frequency transmitters are also being used in many retail stores to prevent shoplifting. They can also be found on toll roads to aid in continued traffic speed. The use of RFID is still limited due to the cost of silicon chips used in the transmitters. Present-day chips are an average of five-cents per chip but would need to be less than one-cent per chip to be considered for world-wide use. Until then, the linear bar code continues to evolve. Soon, Composite symbologies and RSS will enable the use of barcodes on even the smallest of objects, such as a single grape or individual pills.