Happy Birthday to the Barcode!

Birthday cake with colorful candles

There may never be a more understated yet wildly influential and foundational piece of technology than the barcode, which is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year. As the barcode officially becomes an old-timer, let’s look back on how this unassuming design ended up changing the worlds of retail, business, and popular culture.

A Star Is Born In 1952

Many people consider the barcode’s birthday to be the day it was first used in an Ohio grocery store on a pack of gum. But that was hardly the first time anyone had laid eyes on a barcode.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, as the grocery and supermarket sector began growing rapidly, there became a need for a tracking and management system that could keep up with what would prove to be billions and billions of separate items passing through grocery stores.

In response, graduate student Joseph Norman Woodland, inspired by Morse Code, applied for a patent for his “Classifying Apparatus and Method” in 1949. In October of 1952, his patent was issued, marking the birth of what we simply call “the barcode” today.

Original barcode designs included prototypes that featured just four lines, or a circular pattern, before settling into the traditional 1D barcode we know today by the 1970s. It was that style of barcode that was first utilized in the transaction for a pack of gum in 1974.

Most people hardly think about the role the barcode has played in everyday life since its inception. We swipe it ourselves at the grocery store or Target; we see the FedEx guy scan it before handing us a package; we hold it out to gain entry to our flight, or a concert, or when arriving for surgery.

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And now that we mention it, there aren’t many aspects of modern life that haven’t in some way been touched by the growth of barcodes.

How the Barcode Changed Retail

As mentioned above, something like barcodes became necessary for grocery stores with many varieties of items. Once the retailers and manufacturers settled on barcode and barcode scanners as the dominant technology, the concept took off. Now stores were able to track inventory, speed up the lines at checkout, and prevent employees from pocketing the money from a purchase.

Perhaps most importantly, it encouraged just-in-time deliveries of inventory, and made having a large variety of items—food, flowers, home goods, toys, and so on—not only possible, but profitable. Keeping track of this incredibly complex system of inventory management became a breeze, giving rise to the behemoths of retail we know today, such as Wal-Mart and eventually Amazon.

And barcodes are continuing to help these companies innovate and deliver goods and products to people’s doors efficiently. Barcodes power Amazon’s “chaotic storage” system, which would be impossible without barcodes. And Wal-Mart and Target are pushing their suppliers to be more on-time and precise with their deliveries than ever, which requires the precision barcodes provide.


Related Article: BARCODE: THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO BARCODES

Things that we take for granted in retail today—walking into a massive department store and being able to choose from an incredible range of styles, prices, and brands; ordering a product on our phones and having it arrive at our door just days or even hours later—are the direct result of the barcode’s proliferation in the space.

Science and Medicine

Another common place you may have noticed barcodes pop up is at the hospital, where patients can be fitted with barcode labels around their wrists to ensure they’re getting the proper treatment, have been visited recently by a nurse, and are in the right location. We’ve all heard the horror stories of people being given the wrong medication or receiving improper treatment because of medical record mixups—barcodes, as they do in all aspects of life, eliminate that margin for error.

Similarly, pharmacies and doctor’s offices can utilize barcodes to make sure patients are receiving medication in the right doses and formats. Especially in an era where opioid abuse and addiction is so prevalent, keeping this level of security affixed to medication is a must.

But barcodes have also been used in the service of science in ways that we likely haven’t seen. For example, researchers once attached tiny barcodes to bees to better understand their habits and patterns, giving us a glimpse into these integral building blocks of the natural world.

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Entertainment and Pop Culture

On a basic level, barcodes have transformed the way we attend events, such as concerts, sporting events, movie theaters, and anything else that requires a ticket for entry.

Tickets that use barcodes make it harder for copycats to engineer fakes, and they help organizers get a better sense of how many people actually attended, where people were most likely to enter the event space, and other bits of information that add up to “big data” that can be mined for further optimization in the future.

Barcodes—and their more modern counterparts, QR codes—are beginning to proliferate throughout popular culture. Platforms like Spotify, Snapchat, Venmo, and even Facebook are utilizing codes to encourage sharing among friends (while simultaneously adding “big data” value back to the platform). These codes may not look like traditional barcodes (Spotify’s share code looks like an audiowave), which shows the truly versatility of the technology and how it can be retrofitted to meet the brand and culture needs of any one business, band, media personality, or individual.

Barcodes have even invaded the art and architecture world: check out these buildings that were actually designed to look like barcodes, in places like China, Italy, and New Hampshire.

Daily Life

So many aspects of daily life have been touched by barcodes, in ways you probably don’t stop to consider. The creative uses for barcodes are myriad.

Take travel: Tickets for planes, trains, buses, and other forms of transportation often rely on barcodes to help keep track of people, ensure there are no security concerns, and provide passengers with peace of mind.

How about shopping and diet: There are now a multitude of apps that people can use to scan the barcodes of food items to learn more about them—their true nutritional values, how those values might fit into their diet and exercise plans, and even the item’s provenance.

There’s advertising, of course: Bars, restaurants, retail stores, and almost any other entity that wants your business can attach QR codes with discounts, coupons, or more information to both digital and physical advertising, such as in newspapers and magazines, in shop windows, or on street corners.

The Barcode Has Changed the Nature of Things

The barcode has come a long way from simply helping grocery stores keep track of their gum sales. They’ve expanded and touched almost everything we buy, rent, travel on, eat, attend, and more.

That’s the incredible thing about barcodes: They’ve turned every day, typical, regular things into something greater than themselves. An item with a barcode on it isn’t just a barcode: It’s a window into where that item came from, where it’s going, who it belongs to now and who it could belong to in the future. It’s one piece of an incredibly complex and ever-changing puzzle that is the modern world. It’s chock full of information, and information is power. We’ve turned lifeless items—jars of pickles, train tickets, and medicine bottles—into smart items. And yet barcodes remain as humble, simple, small and plain as ever. Rarely does something so small do so much.

What will the next 65 years in barcoding bring? Only time will tell, but if the last 65 were any indication, there’s no limit to the possibilities. Just don’t reuse them!

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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