This post was first published on 29th September, 2014.
When we first go grocery shopping, as a kid, we always wondered what those black and white, think and thin lines indicated. A big puzzle eventually gets answered as we grow up. We now know that they are codes represented in the form of bars, a method for automatic identification and data collection. It has evolved from a punch card system, designed to speed the purchasing process, to the modern barcodes we see on every product imaginable. The rudimentary idea came from the Morse code.
The barcodes were first implemented in the year 1970. This invention would not have been possible if not for a food vendor. He realized how tedious it was to keep track of his inventory and their prices. This man got in touch with the Drexel Institute of Technology to find a solution for the inconvenience. Bernard Silver from the institute took it as a challenge and started to dig into the problem. With one of his students, Norman Joseph Woodland, help they concluded that the answer lied in UV rays scanner and ink. Woodland was trying to come up with simple symbols that would get translated into numbers when scanned, to identify a product. Its said that, Woodland was racking his brains thinking about Morse code and tracing circles in the sand when it finally hit him, the “bulls-eye”!
Bulls-eye symbol is represented with series of concentric circles. However, this symbol wasn’t called “barcodes” yet. Woodland’s invention was patented in 1952 as a “Classifying Apparatus and Method”, US 2612994 A. This was the first ever patent filed on barcodes. For nearly 20 years, this attracted nothing but dust as the equipments needed to put the system together were too expensive. It is only in 1973 that this invention came to light when a group of supermarkets decided to get some kind of scannable symbol in order to move people through the checkout lanes faster. They consulted around 14 companies, including IBM, to come up with a problem solver. That’s when George Laurer comes into the picture. He was working at IBM when he was given Woodland’s “Classifying Apparatus and Method” to look into.
In due course, Laurer came up with a rectangular design that could fit more code in less space. The “Symbol Selection Committee” voted unanimously for Laurer’s rectangular symbol and code, which they named the Universal Product Code, or UPC. A year later, in 1974, a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum became the first item to be scanned with a UPC barcode.
Over the years, barcodes have evolved; QR (Quick Response) code tops the list as the newest member. A simple idea that hit the vendor has developed into a huge business. This invention has definitely revolutionized the shopping experience.
Image: from here