The barcode is 70 years old this year. In that time, it has proven to be a flexible and incredibly useful technology. Would you believe it started on a beach?
In 1949, a mechanical engineer from Drexel University named Joseph Woodland, drew a set of parallel lines in the sand that “represented a kind of ‘long form’ of dots and dashes” or Morse code. Woodland had been thinking about the ways that Morse code could be used to help solve a problem that a colleague had presented to him. The president of a local grocery store chain had asked the university to help him devise a system that would automate the grocery checkout process.
On October 20, 1949, Woodland and his colleague filed a patent application for a “Classifying Apparatus and Method” — the very first barcode concept. And there it remained, just a concept, for a number of years because the scanning technology that had the ability to read the barcodes did not exist at that time. Over the next decade, however, that technology was developed.
In the 1950s and 1960s a handful of industries that saw the potential in barcode technology continued to develop it. The first successful implementation was developed for the Boston and Maine Railroad company. As it caught on, it was designated as the industry standard by the Association of American Railroads (AAR). By 1974, 95% of the AAR fleet was labeled with the barcodes. Even so, the young technology was eventually considered inefficient and was discontinued by the late 1970s.
The key to the global spread of barcodes was the development of the Universal Product Code (UPC). In 1966, the National Association of Food Chains (NAFC), who owned the rights to Woodland’s patent, began to explore the idea of automated checkout systems.
In the 1970’s, the NAFC established a Uniform Grocery Product Code committee that created basic guidelines for an effective coding system. This led to the creation of a standardized 11-digit code to identify any product that is still in use today.
IBM entered the picture at this point, when an employee named George Lauer began to develop what would become the standard “UPC linear 1D” barcode. On June 26th, 1974, the first 1D barcode was scanned in a supermarket in Troy, Ohio. It was on a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum.
Today, barcodes help people track everything from a can of beer to top secret assets in the Department of Defense.