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The Fantastic Journey of the Humble Barcode


Barcodes. You’ll find them everywhere – from airline tickets to grocery store shelves. Today, this simple arrangement of bars and symbols can be found on almost every product we purchase. 

But, how much do you know about this surprisingly sophisticated coding system? Exactly what information does the barcode contain? And how did the modern barcode tracking system come to be?

An Answer to a Supermarket Manager’s Prayers

According to Smithsonian Magazine, the journey to modern barcode technology began in the late 1940s at the request of an overwhelmed supermarket manager. He was desperately seeking a way to reduce the delays and the regular stock taking that were costing him profits.

The manager eventually brought his dilemma to the dean Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia. There, the request caught the attention of Bernard “Bob” Silver, who contacted Drexel alum, Joe Woodland. Woodland, an inventor, was in Miami Beach when he first drew his barcode concept in the sand. The idea, Woodland said, originated from the Morse Code system of dots and dashes he had learned as a boy scout.

Together, Woodland and Silver filed a US patent on their bulls-eye shaped barcode in 1949. The patent was granted in 1952. Unfortunately, they were years ahead of the laser and microcomputer they would need to put their barcode technology to practical use. 

In 1973, the Uniform Grocery Product Code Council chose George Laurer’s vertical barcode design for the UPC code because it was easier to print than the circular shape developed by Woodland and Silver. Finally, with a scanner and computers in place, the first UPC code was scanned from a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum at the Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio on June 26, 1974. By the 1980s the UPC code had become a household name, thanks to its adoption by mass merchandisers like Kmart.

What’s in a Barcode, Anyway?

From its humble beginnings on supermarket shelves, the barcode has evolved to take many forms that store increasingly complex information. The familiar one-dimensional (1D) barcode, also referred to as a linear barcode, is the simplest type of code. It stores code horizontally and can be read quickly from left to right by a barcode scanner. 1D barcodes can contain anywhere from 8 to as many as 25 characters, not including special characters. 

The 1D barcode can store tracking information, product descriptions, item or customer identification, and more. 1D codes contain details about a product such as the size, type, and manufacturer. However, it doesn’t contain price information, which is often stored in a database.

Two-dimensional (2D) barcodes are more complex than their one-dimensional counterparts, and may contain up to 2,000 characters of encoded data.  One popular type of 2D matrix barcode is the Quick Response Code (QR code). The QR code was invented in Japan in 1994 to help the automotive industry track vehicles during the manufacturing process and ensure that data could be decoded very quickly.

Two-dimensional codes are useful for many tasks, including supply chain management, time tracking, mobile marketing, logistics, sales registry, inventory tracking, document management, and item identification. 2D barcodes encrypt data horizontally and vertically on a white background, using black squares organized in square grids. They can store characters, digits, special characters, and punctuation, such as colons. Phrases and words, such as web addresses, can also be stored in the codes. 

QR codes can be scanned from any direction and at any angle up to 3600. This reduces the risk of background interference, making the code easier to read. They are also very resilient, permitting a high degree of image corruption while retaining the integrity of the data. In fact, approximately 30% of a QR code can be damaged without the data being lost.

How Business Tracking Boosts Business

Today, nearly every industry uses barcodes, product identifiers, and location identifiers, like a Global Location Number (GLN), to increase productivity, efficiency, and customer satisfaction. Every day, barcode tracking is used to:

  • Scan and identify products in warehouses, online, and at point of sale. 
  • Ensure the safety of consumers and patients by tracking food, pharmaceuticals, and medical devices.
  • Capture location, nutrition, and allergen data to help restaurants, growers, and packaged goods businesses share more accurate information with consumers and trading partners. 

Barcodes have quickly evolved from a solution for supermarkets to streamlining processes across nearly every industry around the world. As noted by ProcessFlows UK, barcode technology provides an astonishing variety of benefits, beginning with:

  • Increased Efficiency: Users can save time by using barcodes to auto-populate indexing values, rather than manually entering the data. Barcode recognition also increases document-processing speeds and can be used to associate all related documents, expediting retrieval. 
  • Error Reduction: Certain barcodes contain checksums, which detect errors within the barcode, so that the data isn’t misinterpreted. 
  • Improved Accuracy: Data entered automatically using barcodes will have a more consistent format with fewer errors.
  • Increased Privacy: Barcodes are also a powerful way to increase privacy controls, since a barcode can represent many lines of personal data, including: names, addresses, health conditions, social security data, and more.

The success of barcode technology is evident in that it is used in nearly every industry around the world. In fact, the GS1 organization noted that, “The beep of a barcode is heard over 6 billion times per day.” The symbol is so commonplace that most of us take it for granted. Yet, without this deceptively sophisticated technology, many businesses would struggle to operate as efficiently as they do today.