The History of the Barcode and How it Conquered the Business World

So the history of the barcode….

barcode, History of the Barcode


There have been a lot of revolutionary technologies developed that caused massive changes in society as a whole. Automobiles, planes, and the Internet are all perfect examples of these world-changing inventions. But new technologies aren’t always so blatant and obvious in their effects and radical changes. In fact, one of the most influential and revolutionary technologies of the 20th century is the exact opposite of blatant and obvious, yet it has spread across the globe and infiltrated almost every industry and commercial field there is. You have seen this technology used for years and never really thought about it. This technology, of course, is the barcode. Those little rectangles of black and white strips are used across the globe in almost every store, business, hospital, and any other institution you can think of. It’s almost stunning to think that such a simple, diminutive picture of random lines could have been, and still is so incredibly important and influential.

Another interesting fact is how old barcode technology is. By today’s standards of technological growth, barcodes are incredibly “outdated”, “oldfashioned”, and “stagnant” yet they are still used by almost every business you can think of across the globe. They are on just about every product you can find and they aren’t going to disappear any time soon.

In the Beginning

The birth of the modern barcode took place in an unassuming Marsh Supermarket in Ohio on June 26, 1974 when Clyde Dawson bought a ten pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum for 67 cents. The cashier, Sharon Buchanan, checked out his purchase by scanning the very first commercial UPC (Universal Product Code) barcode. Interestingly, Inc. states that the pack of gum purchased all those decades ago now sits on display in the Smithsonian. Regardless of that pack of gums rise to glory, the impetus for the creation of the UPC code was actually started a year prior, according to Slate, when Alan Haberman and a group of supermarket executives decided they needed something to speed up the checkout lines. They asked 14 different companies, including IBM, to work on developing some form of scan-able symbol for use in their supermarkets.

The thing is, this mission that Haberman and his fellow execs set the tech companies was not the true origins of the barcode. While George Laurer ended up creating the familiar rectangle of black and white lines so ubiquitous today, and in doing so won IBM the race against the other companies, he was actually building off of another man’s work from decades before.

Before the Beginning

Depending on your interpretation of lineage and origins, the first spark that was to lead to modern barcodes could be placed as far back as 1890 when the punch cards that were created for the U.S. Census opened the eyes of grocers to the idea of a potential tool they could use. But sadly for those men, nothing came of that dim glimmer until 1932 when Wallace Flint penned his master’s thesis envisioning a supermarket that used punch cards and conveyor belts to ferry food to waiting customers.

Once again, more than a decade passed before the next stage of the barcode’s development took place. But this time, in 1948, something actually happened. To paraphrase Barcoding, Beraird Silver, a grad student at the Drexel Institute of Technology, overheard a conversation between a food exec and the Dean. The exec wanted a way to automatically capture and record product information at the check out counter. The Dean dismissed him, but Silver took the idea to heart and brought in his friend Norman Woodland. The idea of the barcode had been concieved.

This time paraphrasing Inc. Woodland and Silver worked on the project for years. Early on, Woodland struck upon the idea of using Morse Code as a foundation for the data storage and a few years later they came up with a bull’s eye blueprint they got a patent for. There were other, smaller discoveries afterward, some by Woodland, some by others. But nothing really came of the patent or the idea until the mission Haberman gave the tech companies. Laurer didn’t actually develop the UPC code on his own, Woodland himself assisted in the process.


Onwards and Upwards

Now what? You may ask. Well, now it’s today, and barcodes are absolutely everywhere. They are, in fact, so ubiquitous and so common now that, according to GS1, over five billion products are scanned a day across the world using barcodes. Not bad for a 40 year old technology.

However, the question remains, how long will the reign of the barcode last for? The way things look now, that reign will continue for quite some time. From that first, simple UPC code (which is still used everywhere today), dozens of derivative codes have sprung. There are QR codes, DataMatrix, EAN, LOGMARS, Maxicode, Codabar, and plenty more. From the original 1D UPC code came the 2D codes like QRs. And now there are even 3D codes in use in some factories.
Until a worthy replacement is developed, the barcode will continue to reign supreme in the realm of data storage, inventory tracking, and any other task you can find for it. From eCommerce vendors like Shopify to pharmaceutical storages in Mayo Clinic, barcodes are everywhere, and they aren’t leaving any time s


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