Everybody knows them and everyone benefits from them. We’re talking about barcodes, a pattern of assorted lines and bars used on packages. Their impact on us and our everyday lives is enormous and we couldn’t do without them. But do you know what the very first product under a barcode scanner was? Or did you know that the “lines” started out as circles? Learn more about the development and application of barcodes and what “deadly lasers” have to do with it all.
While barcodes are commonplace on packaging and products nowadays, the story behind their invention is surprising. The victory march of the black and white bars actually began long before they were placed on the first tin cans and pasta packs. American supermarket managers are known for always having had a sense of efficiency. In 1948, one of them – frustrated by the fact that stores had to be temporarily closed to do the inventory, and customers had to wait impatiently at tills while eager saleswomen totaled the prices by hand – approached the dean of the renowned Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia to ask for his help. His request: could a technology be invented that enabled customers to be served faster so his store’s sales would be increased?
The task landed, more or less by chance, in the lap of the two doctoral students Bernard “Bob” Silver and Joe Woodland. After rejecting older attempts at a solution, like the principle of the punch cards from 1938, Woodland found himself lost in thought on the sands of Miami Beach. As he pondered visual representations of the dot and dash symbols of Morse code and their possible application, he drew lines in the sand and left behind initially linear and finally circular tracks. The first, concrete idea for the barcode had been born.
Just one year later, Silver and Woodland submitted their patent application for the linear and circular bullseye variants of the barcode, which was finally granted in 1952 after a long fight. Yet now they were faced with even greater challenges: how should the codes be printed and produced without errors and ultimately be read by machines?
The first scanner, invented by Silver and Woodland themselves, was a flop due to the size of its processor unit and its unwieldiness. It also seemed impossible to generate enough light to read the print. Their black and white code was simply ahead of its time – and so the two men sold their patent in 1962 to Philco, a pioneer of radio and television manufacturing.
As it happened, the solution to this challenge had long existed on the other side of the USA: a different groundbreaking invention finally provided the answer to the scanner problem. In the research laboratories of Hughes Aircraft Company, a talented engineer by the name of Theodore Maiman was tinkering on a device that compressed highly concentrated and extremely hot beams of light into a “laser” (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). Although his invention was not intended for military use, this didn’t stop the sensation-seeking press from causing a worldwide furore in 1960 with headlines like “L.A. Man Discovers Science Fiction Death Ray.” A short while later, Theodore Maiman’s invention of the first laser was to unintentionally revolutionize the retail industry.
Even the sustainably constructed iLogistics Center near Vienna Airport references the barcode with the design of its facade. The wooden bars of the award-winning, all-timber warehouse building are based on those bars and lines which have become indispensable in today's logistics.
From then on, things looked up. In 1971, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) bought the barcode patent and embarked on an eighteen-month market test in collaboration with a retail firm and supermarket chain. After only a few months, the success of the round bullseye barcode was indisputable: the faster checkout of purchases at the tills and a more targeted and simpler stock management system pushed sales figures through the roof.
Despite this initial success, achieving “universality” of the barcode, or UPC (Universal Product Code) as it was soon called, was an uphill battle. An ad-hoc committee was formed to establish the wide-scale introduction and application of a standardized barcode. Although the results were highly promising, many brands and manufacturers bristled against the black and white marking, which they saw as being ugly and intrusive. However, the committee was not deterred and announced a competition to decide on the final form of the barcode.
Among the seven contributions submitted was RCA, which seemed to have as good as won the day with its already successfully-tested bullseye version. But a last-minute entry submitted by IBM was what finally convinced the committee. Coincidentally, at that time IBM was the employer of none other than the inventor of the first barcode patent, Joe Woodland. However, it was not Woodland’s design that won but that of a colleague, George Laurer. One important reason was that it was possible to make the straight-lined barcode smaller with no loss of accuracy when printing and scanning. The winner was thus chosen on quite pragmatic grounds. The first automated till scanners were installed in supermarkets just a short while later, and modern history written on June 26, 1974, with the scanning of a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum in a supermarket in Ohio.
Customers were initially skeptical about the black and white lines and conspiracy theorists had found a new target. Despite this, the use of barcodes and scanners in supermarkets spread right across North America in the 1980s. The simple, more cost-effective and efficient control of stocks and, for the first time, an in-depth insight into consumer behavior made it possible for companies to offer, manage and coordinate an incredible quantity and diversity of products. In just a few years this lead to the end of the age of small, family-run stores and to the rise of international market giants from Walmart to Amazon.
Very soon, the whole world wanted a slice of the barcode pie. The black and white bars excelled, particularly with the arrival of the Internet and the expansion of seemingly boundless online commerce. In 1988, a new standard was defined under the name International or European Article Number (EAN), because the data potential of the simple, linear code had soon become exhausted due to the constant additions of new global markets, products and producers. And now people are already thinking about successor concepts, that’s how stunning the triumph of this so-called “optoelectronically readable universal font” has been.
That the barcode is also of elemental importance in the world of transport and logistics comes as no surprise. This little helper is really used everywhere, in all areas, and has proved its worth from the very start. The technology makes goods, packages, stored wares, storage documentation, boxes, individual parts, etc. machine-readable and can be used in a wide range of applications. All those procedures that used to mean manually entering names into endless lists or typing numbers into cumbersome computers have been massively rationalized with the help of “the bars.”
Another big advantage: human error caused by typos or slips of the pen can be virtually ruled out – a factor not to be ignored in logistics. In warehouses, barcodes play an important role in picking, which requires the order forms to be scanned in addition to the goods themselves. In this case, a code is either printed directly onto the product or stuck on as a label. As you can see, these unassuming bars carry a lot of responsibility – and yet they are so simple and innocuous.
So what does the future of the barcode look like? The necessary next step in development followed in 1994 with the first Quick Response (QR) code in Japan. Companies such as “Digimarc” are currently experimenting with digital watermarks or “DWCodes” that are invisible to the human eye; these offer the same advantages for logistics and commerce but without impairing the design of the packaging.
An estimated five billion barcodes are scanned every day for everything from passenger and goods transport, to financial services and healthcare. It remains to be seen what functionalities and areas of use are still to come. The newest technology makes use of sending and receiving systems based on radio waves – for the automatic and contactless identification and localization of objects and living things. This technology is already out there and goes by the name of RFID... conspiracy theories included.
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