Everywhere you go, barcodes are there. From shopping to shipping, to transport, to our finances, our stock and information are constantly processed and recorded through an array of simple, parallel lines. Barcodes now carry with them an unprecedented level of trust, but they only entered the popular consciousness in 1974. How, then, did people conduct business and shop safely before the barcode?
The Beginning of the Barcode: Punch Cards
Before the bar code, shops and businesses needed to count stock manually, with issues such as shoplifting being much more common than modern levels. Without barcodes and their associated security systems, there was a total lack of deterrence as shoplifters couldn’t be caught as easily. After the wilderness years of pre-1890, where shopkeepers had to rely on stock counts and perceptive eyes, a punch card system was slowly adopted. These punch cards could only be used for simple arithmetic though. So, by the rise of the supermarkets in the 1920s, they were found to be old-fashioned and obsolete.
The Creation Phase: An Academic Study
Bar codes were, initially, dreams found in the realm of academic discussion and entrepreneurial spirit. The earliest record can be traced back to the 1930s by Wallace Flint, whose Harvard thesis envisioned an “automated grocery system” using punch cards and flow racks.
Essentially, Flint’s vision of the retail future was where customers would go to a store, mark their selections on a punch card, and insert these cards into a card reader which would then activate flow racks to bring customers their desired product.
The system doesn’t sound too dissimilar to modern self-service checkouts and stores like Argos, so maybe Flint was onto something. The idea, though, went nowhere due to cost, but it did get people thinking.
A decade or so later in 1948, a pair of graduate students at Drexler University embarked on their first steps to creating the first barcode. After overhearing a colleague turn down a proposal from a food-chain president to invent a machine to capture product information accurately, the pair – named Bernard Silver and Joseph Woodland – began working on a retail system to capture information. The first device they invented used patterns of ink that would glow under ultraviolet light, but this, much like Flint’s ideas, was not economically viable.
On the verge of giving up, the pair decided to pop to the beach to unwind. Woodland began absent-mindedly drawing Morse code dots in the sand, before drawing vertical lines from each dot. Suddenly, he had his sought-after “Eureka!” moment.
He thought if Morse code could be translated to the retail sphere, it could easily and quickly communicate product information. However, the pair then struggled on how to design the barcode label and to put it on a product.
Answering “How to do Barcode”, Teething Problems and Cashing In
Silver and Woodland were met with a few problems to solve, including how small a barcode can be, what it should look like, how to put a barcode on a product and how to plan out its overall design.
After some time struggling to envision the proto-barcode, they eventually perfected it by changing the lines on it to bulls-eye patterns. They then filed a patent for the barcode, which they named “Classifying Apparatus and Method” – very catchy. They sold the patent for $15,000 to Philco in 1962, who then sold it to RCA.
Following those years, RCA and IBM vied for barcode dominance until 1974, when the first barcode sale was completed in Troy, Ohio at 8:01 AM using IBM’s system. The first sale was a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum for 67 cents. The rest, they say, is history.
Since that day in 1974, barcodes have been used non-stop all over the world. Nowadays, airliners are trialling RFID tracking via barcodes so customers never lose their luggage again, scientists believe they can map the human brain using barcode technology, and the world of shipping is on its way to being dominated entirely by the technology.
Overall, the simple barcode label has come a long way from a futuristic thesis on retail shopping to a piece of technology that the world relies on.
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