Where did the Barcodes came from?

Artwork: The original barcodes didn't use "zebra" stripes like they do today, but "bullseye" patterns like these. Artwork from US Patent #2,612,944: Classifying apparatus and method by Woodland and Silver, courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office.

How did we arrive at a point where virtually everything we buy is marked with a barcode? Here are some of the key moments in barcode history:

  • 1948: Bernard Silver (1924–1963) and N. Joseph Woodland (1921–) get the idea for developing grocery checkouts that can automatically scan products. Woodland tries various different marking systems, including lines and circles, marks inspired by movie soundtracks, and dots and dashes based on Morse code. In October 1949, the two inventors refine their system to use bullseye patterns and apply for a patent (US Patent #2,612,944), which is granted on October 7, 1952. Their early barcode-scanning equipment uses a conventional lamp to illuminate product labels and a photomultiplier (a crude type of photoelectric cell) to read the light reflected off them. In 1951, Joe Woodland joins IBM to work on barcode technology, though the company declines to purchase his patent, which is acquired by Philco (and later RCA).

  • The 1960s: RCA develops a number of commercial applications until the patent expires in 1969. Work on bullseye barcodes continues, but they prove unreliable and gradually fall by the wayside.
  • 1970: By now, grocery stores are beginning to explore the idea of using their own product coding and marking systems, but different stores are considering different systems, and this threatens to cause problems for large food manufacturers who sell branded goods to multiple retailers. Under the guidance of Alan Haberman (1929–2011), executive vice president of First National Stores in Boston, the stores come together to form the Uniform Code Council (UCC), later known as GS1 US, the organization that now manages barcode standards worldwide.
  • 1971: Meanwhile, at IBM, George J. Laurer (1925–) builds on Woodland's ideas to develop the Universal Product Code (UPC)—the modern black-and-white striped barcode. (Read more about Laurer's work and IBM's contributions to barcode technology.)
  • 1973: After examining a variety of different marking systems, Haberman's grocery stores committee settles on IBM's rectangular UPC as the standard grocery barcode. Although he didn't invent the barcode, Haberman is widely credited with its universal adoption.
  • 1974: On June 26, the world's first grocery-store barcode scanner goes into use at Marsh's Supermarket, Troy, Ohio in the United States. The first scanned purchase, made by Clyde Dawson, is for a 10-pack of Wrigley's chewing gum.
  • 1979: In the UK, a barcode scanner is used for the first time at Key Markets in Spalding, Lincolnshire.
  • 2011: Joe Woodland and the late Bernard Silver are inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in recognition of their brilliant invention.

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