The interesting, but little-known, history of barcode technology.
Barcodes are used on everything from retail items, to hospital bracelets, to animals being tracked in the wild. These simple black and white symbols have become such an ordinary part of everyday life that most people never stop to consider the history of barcodes or how this technology came to be.
The idea for the modern barcode used today was sparked in 1932 at the Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration. Wallace Flint led a small group of students in a study which had customers take punched cards representing merchandise that they wished to purchase from a catalogue. When the cards were given to the checker, they were placed into a reader which then pulled the items automatically. A bill was created, and the inventory was updated. It was soon decided that Flint's idea was not economically feasible, and the plan was shelved.
In 1948 Bernard Silver, a graduate student at the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia, and Norman Joseph Woodland, also a graduate student, as well as teacher at the Drexel Institute, began to work on developing a system similar to Flint's. Most retail stores were only able to take a full inventory about once a month, making it difficult for store managers to keep shelves stocked efficiently. Silver and Woodland believed that developing a system to automatically read product information during checkout would solve the problem for retailers, as well as reduce labor costs, and improve customer satisfaction by speeding up the check out process.
The symbol first created was made up of dashes and lines and was inspired by Morse code. It was printed in ultraviolet ink, but the ink tended to fade and was considered too expensive. The basic code eventually developed was made up of several white lines on a dark background, with the product information being represented by the presence or absence of the lines. A patent for the barcode was issued on October 7, 1952.
The barcode was eventually commercialized in 1966 by the National Association of Food Chains and installed in a Kroger store in Cincinnati. There were many issues with both the barcodes and scanners, and it was eventually decided that if the barcode was to be widely accepted, a standard system available to all equipment manufacturers would have to be developed.
In 1973 the barcode system that inspired the one we still use today was officially put into place. It was developed through IBM by George Laurer and was based upon the general idea of Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland.
The new system was installed at a Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio, and on June 26, 1974, a customer named Clyde Dawson purchased the very first item to be scanned by the system-a 10-pack of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum. Both the gum and the receipt are on display in the Smithsonian and serve as a simple reminder of the interesting history of barcodes.