Today, barcoding is a staple of inventory management and life. Virtually every consumer product is barcoded with EAN or UPC codes, our mail is often labeled with barcodes and even advertisements often now contain ‘2D’ barcodes pointing us to a merchant’s website or promotion. Without barcodes, the task of controlling large inventories would be enormously difficult as barcoding speeds up stock handling, improves data entry and makes life a lot simpler at stock take time. But where did barcodes come from?
The modern barcode can arguably be traced back to 1890, when punch cards were first used to help with the 1890 United States census. Those punch cards were later adapted to the retail environment – customers selected products for a clerk to fetch from a warehouse by taking the relevant punch card and giving it to the clerk. Unfortunately, punch cards proved too expensive for many businesses and in the mid-1940s, a group of inventors at Drexel Institute of Technology began work on barcodes.
The original barcode prototype extended the idea behind Morse code, extending the dots into bars with gaps, the same design that persists today. This work led to a patent, filed in 1949 and issued three years later, titled “Classifying Apparatus and Method”. The Drexel inventors also toyed with alternative symbologies and designs, including a circular design that is no longer used.
Barcodes entered industrial use in the 1960s. One early scheme used barcodes to trail rail cars, although this proved inefficient and was discontinued after a short time. General Motors was another early adopter, implementing barcoding in mid-1969 to identify various types of automotive transmissions moving from manufacture to dispatch. This is one of the earliest examples of barcodes being used for inventory control.
A major factor prompting barcodes to take off in the industrial context was the United States Military’s adoption of Code 39 barcodes for all products supplied to them. Major companies were now required to embrace barcoding technology to win lucrative military contracts.
The first barcode in the retail context – for a 10 pack of Juicyfruit gum – was scanned in 1974 at a supermarket in Ohio. Although some commentators considered that barcodes were a sinister “corporate plot against consumers”, retailers and their customers alike were enthusiastic about the new technology. Since then, barcodes have become a consumer staple.
Improving the barcode
In the 1990s, Japanese inventors created a new barcode symbology which departed from the traditional bar and gap model. This symbology used squares or rectangles – so far, so similar to traditional barcodes. Where the symbology differed was that it contained many individual dots, creating the potential to store significantly more information in a similarly sized space. As with traditional barcodes, a number of different symbologies took off. However, by the late 2000s, one particular 2D barcode had taken off. The QR (quick response) Code was developed in 1999 and is today used in ticketing, mobile applications, media and inventory control.
The development of barcoding over the past century is nothing short of a remarkable success story. Barcoding has revolutionised inventory control and is now a major factor affecting inventory management.