The Rise of Barcode Scanners and How We Got Here

Empty cash desk with payment terminal and customers in queue in supermarket

Just take a look around anywhere you go and you’ll likely find barcode labels, with their narrow and wide parallel lines, mysterious digits and patterns made up of dots, squares and even hexagons, a very integral part of your life. They’re used to identify everything from products at a grocery store to patients in hospitals, validate prescriptions, log into wifi networks, check on to flights, you name it.

To say the least, the barcode stripes with numbers and letters at the bottom are some of “the most trusted marks in the world,” Art Smith, CEO of GS1 Canada, told The Globe and Mail.

When you think about it, the inescapable barcode’s simple, yet mysterious lines, digits, letters and patterns keep businesses running efficiently, tracking everything that enters and exits. Without a proper barcode system, businesses are at risk of flat sales, overflowing storage centers or empty shelves, not good for business reputation and customer satisfaction.

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But how did barcodes come to revolutionize business practices since its appearance in the 1930s? To find that out, let’s first go back to the 1890s when inventory management meant the labor intensive recording of every product by hand.

1890s

Before barcodes came around, running a business was no easy feat. Yesterday’s asset management system had stores shutting down in order to count every can, bag, parcel, and piece of fruit or meat they had. Needless to say, this process was expensive and time-consuming, so stores didn’t do this more than once per month.

In 1890, the U.S. Census used punch cards for the first time and the process offered some hope for grocery stores. However, once supermarkets gained popularity in the U.S. in the 1920s, punch cards weren’t going to cut it and a pressing need came out of the industry for an automated system.

1930s

The original idea for a barcode system came out of a Harvard Business School student’s master thesis paper. Wallace Flint envisioned an “automated grocery system” where customers would go through the stores, mark their selections on punch cards, insert the cards into a card reader at the checkout counter which would then activate flow racks to pull the merchandise from the storeroom and automatically dispense the products to customers on conveyer belts.


Related Article: BARCODE: THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO BARCODES

It sounds futuristic even today—and the ambitious project didn’t work because the card reading equipment at the time was simply too bulky and expensive.

Photo showing a girl scanning her shopping (including fresh fruit / organic strawberries) at a self-service supermarket checkout till (also known as 'Self Checkouts' and 'Semi Attended Customer Activated Terminals' - SACAT. Self-service checkouts are quickly becoming commonplace in large supermarkets, reducing staff costs and replacing the need for cashiers.

1940s

In the halls at Drexel University in 1948, graduate student Bernard Silver overhears a dean at the college refuse a proposal from the president of a food chain to undertake research for a system to capture product information automatically.

Silver was intrigued by the conversation and later, relays the story to his friend, Joseph Woodland, a 27-year-old graduate student at Drexel. That year, the two quickly began working on a retail checkout system to track inventory. Woodland left school in Philadelphia and moved to his grandfather’s apartment in Florida to work on the idea full-time.

First, a device using patterns of ink that would glow under an ultraviolent light was built, but high printing costs and ink instability meant Woodland and Silver had to abort the concept. Next, during a day at the beach, Woodland drew dots simulating Morse code into the sand, then lengthened them into vertical lines and bars. He thought, if Morse code (which Woodland learned as a Boy Scout) enabled information to be communicated electronically, why couldn’t it communicate product information at a grocery store?

The duo then coupled the idea with movie technology, using a very hot 500-watt bulb to reflect off the lines to create patterns that could be read by a machine. Unfortunately, the machines were too big, computers were still too expensive and lasers hadn’t even been invented yet. So, Woodland and Silver changed the lines on the barcode to bulls-eye patterns, which is made up of a series of concentric circles.

On October 20, 1949, a patent was filed by the two titled “Classifying Apparatus and Method.”

1950s

Woodland lands a job with IBM in 1951 and the company tries to buy the patent several times, but didn’t offer enough money.

1960s

In 1962, Philco meets the duo’s price of $15,000 and they sell. Philco later sells the patent to RCA. The following year, Silver dies at the age of 38, long before barcodes are commercialized.

In 1966, the National Association of Food Chains (NAFC) puts out a call for a much-needed inventory tracking system.

Around this same time, the railroad industry had adopted an optical bar code after years of attempting to develop a practical automated identification system. For seven years starting on October 10, 1967, the Association of American Railroad labeled their freight cars with a system of color bars, but abandoned the KarTrak labels in the late 1970s for a multitude of reasons. Amazingly, the labels developed by David J. Collins, who worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad as an undergraduate at MIT, were carried by about 95 percent of all U.S. rail cars.

Wireless Barcode Scanner

1970s

At a grocery industry meeting in the spring of 1971, RCA demonstrated the bulls-eye barcode and set off a competition war with IBM. Recent laser scanning technology had made barcode development viable and George J. Laurer, who also worked at IBM.

Woodland, designed the familiar black and white lines of the Universal Product Code (UPC), which is still the most commonly used barcode in the U.S. today. Laurer’s design was based considerably on Woodland’s model.

In 1972, RCA installed the bulls-eye code system into a Kroger store in Cincinnati, but multiple problems gave way for IBM’s UPC to win the battle. The next year, a group of supermarket executives who were part of the Symbol Selection Committee adopted the UPC barcode system as standard for the industry.

At 8:01 a.m. on June 26, 1974, a historic ring-up occurred at a supermarket called Marsh in Troy, Ohio when shopper Clyde Dawson bought a 10-pack (50 sticks) of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum. The cashier Sharon Buchanan made the first UPC scan and rang up 67 cents. The same pack of gum is now displayed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.

Current and future times

According to this 2012 article in Wired, people used to think the early barcode was a sign of the devil because IBM gave its barcode readers the number 3666.

We’ve come a long way since those days.

Today, there are two types of barcodes: one-dimensional and two-dimensional. The first is made up of lines and numbers and hold text information. It’s used generally for tracking inventory and invoices. 2D barcodes uses patterns made up of dots, squares and hexagons and can do much more than keep track of assets and inventory. For instance, a QR code can store as much as 7,000 digits or 4,000 text characters and a quick scan can bring up information like price, quantity, web address, image, coupons and even advertising videos.

In the past, the grocery store industry might have set off the pressing need for barcode development, but today, its technologies are used everywhere. And it’s constantly evolving, like Delta Air Lines recently investing $50 million to develop a new tracking system using RFID technology so customers never lose their luggages again. There’s even long been talks of mapping the brain with barcodes to track illnesses and even a wearable ring scanner is in the works at Apple. According to ABI Research, wearable scanner shipments will reach nearly 22 million by 2021, a big jump from the seven million in 2016.

Whatever amazing barcode developments happen in the future, one thing’s for sure: business will never be the same again.

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Brian Sutter

Brian Sutter

Director of Marketing at Wasp Barcode
Brian Sutter is the Director of Marketing at Wasp, responsible for the development and execution of the company’s marketing strategy. His role encompasses brand management, direct and channel marketing, public relations, advertising, and social media. He also writes and speaks on topics related to helping small business owners grow their business and improve operational efficiency.
Brian Sutter
Brian Sutter