June 17, 2017    3 min read

The humble barcode has been around much longer than most of us would image. Its origins came from a request made to the Drexel Institute of Technology when a grocery manager asked the college to help find a way of mechanizing the checkout process at his local store.

The appeal was driven by his need to improve cashier efficiency, simplify stocktaking activities and in general, to reduce the costs incurred through time consuming manual handling practises.

Despite the request being declined by the school, it had, fortunately, been overheard by Bernard Silver, a then graduate student at Drexel. Along with his friend Norman Woodland, Silver decided to investigate, ways in which product information could be automatically read at a store register.

A line in the sand

While pondering the problem as he sat on a beach in Florida, Woodland drew a series of dots and dashes in the sand, motivated by the Morse Code he had learnt at Boy Scouts. Using his fingers, he dragged the dot/dash symbols downward and the concept of a two-dimensional linear code was born. The year was 1948 and this series of innocuous lines in the sand represented the first depiction of the now, universally recognised barcode symbol.

Silver and Woodland went on to adapt an optical sound film technology, applying for a patent in October 1949. Patent #2612994 was approved for both the linear barcode and circular bullseye design in 1952. The patent was subsequently sold twice that year and it was to be several years later that the system would become viable.

Reading between the lines

It wasn’t until 1973 when the Universal Product Code (UPC) was developed that the barcode was on its way to commercial reality. Although Woodland was instrumental in developing this new version, it was his fellow IBM engineer, George Laurer who is credited with creating the UPC.

A scanner was developed to read the barcode that worked by projecting a laser beam onto a rotating mirror. The reflection was captured on a photodiode signalling to a computerized register which matched the information in its database, determining the product being scanned. The first barcode scanners to be installed were the Spectra Physics Model A. The location was a Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio.

A place in history

It was here, on the Wednesday morning of 26 June 1974, a package of Wrigley’s chewing gum became the first product to be purchased using the UPC barcode. The gum was supposedly selected to test if the scanner could accurately read the barcode on such a small product. Automated checkouts had finally been achieved, the barcode had found its place in history and that packet of Wrigley’s gum, a home at the Smithsonian Institute.

The barcode revolution

Silver and Woodland’s concept had finally achieved its goal, becoming an effective tool to improve order entry processes and point of sale transaction processes.

Little could they have imagined their design would be embraced by the fashion industry. The iconic little symbol inspiring clothing lines and appearing on catwalks around the world.

Their barcode design has transformed nearly every other industry, revolutionizing procurement processes, inventory management, product tracking and global supply chain operations.

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