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Have You Ever Wondered How Barcodes Were Invented?

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Post Have You Ever Wondered How Barcodes Were Invented?   Sat Aug 13, 2011 10:32 am

Barcodes have become a ubiquitous part of consumer and industrial life. Nearly every product sold in stores features a barcode, and most businesses use them to track inventory and payroll. But how were they invented?

The story begins in 1948 with Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland, two grad students at the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Silver overheard the president of local supermarket chain Food Fair talking to a dean about the idea of a machine that could automatically identify product information during checkout. Silver told his friend Woodland about it, and the two started working on the concept themselves.

Their first working system used ultraviolet ink, but the ink faded too fast and was too expensive to be used commercially. The next system, developed by Woodland in his father's apartment, was based on Morse code. A 500-watt light bulb shining onto a movie projector tube could scan a series of long and short lines. On October 20, 1949, Woodland and Silver filed a patent application for this system, entitled "Classifying Apparatus and Method".

IBM hired Woodland in 1951, and he tried to get them interested in the barcode project. While his colleagues and executives agreed it was an intriguing idea, they published an official report stating that the technology necessary to process the barcode information was still too far from fruition to justify more work on the project.

Disappointed, Woodland sold the patent to the Philadelphia Storage Battery Company in 1952. They sold it to the Radio Corporation of America in the same year. The RCA did nothing with the patent at this time. Silver died of a traffic collision in 1963.

In 1966, the National Association of Food Chains discussed the idea of automated checkout systems. RCA offered to develop a system based on the patent that Woodland and Silver had created. Kroger's offered to test it. By the mid-1970, the NAFC had developed a standardized 11-digit code, and sent out a contract tender to develop the readers for it.

IBM execs noticed RCA demonstrating their system at an industry meeting. Remembering that their employee Norman Joseph Woodland had gotten the barcode ball rolling decades before, they set up a brand new IBM facility to help Woodland develop a system of IBM's own.

In 1972, RCA set their system up at a Kroger's in Cincinnati. However, because their barcode lines were printed width-wise, the codes would be unreadable if the ink smeared during printing, which it often did. IBM's codes were printed in the direction of the stripes, so it was more reliable. In 1973 the National Association of Food Chains made IBM's system, dubbed the UPC, the standard.

Despite the long-term benefits it promised them, grocers were reluctant to adopt the system. Even by 1977 fewer than 200 grocery stores owned scanning machines. However, once sales information revealed that barcode-using grocery stores experienced a permanent 10-12% increase in sales, adoption skyrocketed. Barcodes are now a global standard for product sales and identification.

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