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A Short History Of Bar Code
(For Bar Code News, visit the Bar Code News Page.)

In 1932 an ambitious project was conducted by a small group of students headed by Wallace Flint at the Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration. The project proposed that customers select desired merchandise from a catalog by removing corresponding punched cards from the catalog. These punched cards were then handed to a checker who placed the cards into a reader. The system then pulled the merchandise automatically from the storeroom and delivered it to the checkout counter. A complete customer bill was produced and inventory records were updated.

Modern bar code began in 1948. Bernard Silver, a graduate student at Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia, overheard the president of a local food chain asking one of the deans to undertake research to develop a system to automatically read product information during checkout. Silver told his friend Norman Joseph Woodland about the food chain president's request. Woodland was a twenty seven year old graduate student and teacher at Drexel. The problem fascinated Woodland and he began to work on the problem.

Joe Woodland Woodland's first idea used patterns of ink that would glow under ultraviolet light. Woodland and Silver built a device which worked, but the system had problems with ink instability and it was expensive to print the patterns. Woodland was still convinced they had a workable idea. Woodland took some stock market earnings, quit his teaching job at Drexel, and moved to his grandfather's Florida apartment to have more time to work on the problem.

On October 20, 1949, Woodland and Silver filed a patent application titled "Classifying Apparatus and Method." The inventors described their invention as relating "to the art of article classification...through the medium of identifying patterns".

Most bar code histories state that the Woodland and Silver bar code was a "bull's eye" symbol, a symbol made up of a series of concentric circles. While Woodland and Silver did describe such a symbol, the basic symbology was described as a straight line pattern quite similar to present day linear bar codes like UPC and Code 39.

The symbology was made up of a pattern of four white lines on a dark background. The first line was a datum line and the positions of the remaining three lines were fixed with respect to the first line. The information was coded by the presence or absence of one or more of the lines. This allowed 7 different classifications of articles. However, the inventors noted that if more lines were added, more classifications could be coded. With 10 lines, 1023 classifications could be coded.

The Woodland and Silver patent application was issued October 7, 1952 as US Patent 2,612,994.

In 1962 Silver died at age thirty-eight (in an automobile accident) before having seen the commercial use of bar code. Woodland was awarded the 1992 National Medal of Technology by President George Herbert Walker Bush. Neither Silver nor Woodland made much money on the idea that started a billion dollar business. That was because they sold the patent to RCA in 1952 for a small sum of money, long before any commericalization of the technology. The patent expired in 1969, 5 years before the first industry wide use of barcode in grocery stores. It was an invention ahead of its time.

Woodland passed away on December 13, 2012 at the age of 91.

The National Association of Food Chains (NAFC) put out a call to equipment manufacturers for systems that would speed the checkout process. In 1967 RCA installed one of the first scanning systems at a Kroger store in Cincinnati. The product codes were represented by "bull's-eye barcodes", a set of concentric circular bars and spaces of varying widths. These barcodes were not pre-printed on the item's packaging, but were labels that were put on the items by Kroger employees. But there was problems with the RCA/Kroger code. It was recognized that the industry would have to agree on a standard coding scheme open to all equipment manufacturers in order to getl food producers and dealers to adopt the technology.

In 1969, the NAFC asked Logicon, Inc. to develop a proposal for an industry-wide bar code system. The result was Parts 1 and 2 of the Universal Grocery Products Identification Code (UGPIC) in the summer of 1970. Based on the recommendations of the Logicon report, the U.S. Supermarket Ad Hoc Committee on a Uniform Grocery Product Code was formed. Three years later, the Committee recommended the adoption of the UPC symbol set still used in the USA today. It was submitted by IBM and developed by George Laurer (see the history at his web site), whose work was an outgrowth of the idea of Woodland and Silver. Woodland was an IBM employee at the time.

In June 1974, one of the first UPC scanner, made by NCR Corp. (which was then called National Cash Register Co), was installed at Marsh's supermarket in Troy, Ohio. On June 26, 1974 at 8:01 a.m, Sharon Buchanan, a checker at Marsh's supermarket in Troy, Ohio scanned first product with a bar code. It was a 10-pack (10 5-stick packets) of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit chewing gum. The cash register rang up total of 67 cents for that first item. The pack of gum wasn't specially designated to be the first scanned product. It just happened to be the first item lifted from the cart by a shopper, Clyde Dawson. Today, the pack of gum is on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

History of Industrial Barcode Applications

The first attempted at an industrial application of automatic identification was begun in the late 1950's by the Association of American Railroad. In 1967, the Association adopted an optical bar code from Sylvana called ""KarTrak" (see US Patent 3225177 and US Patent 3417231). Car labeling and scanner installation began on October 10, 1967. It took seven years before 95% of the fleet was labeled. For many reasons, the system simply did not work and was abandoned in 1975. In 1988, Burington Northern began inplementing an RFID tag system to keep track of its rail cars. RFID was the original system proposed in the 1960's (but it was too expensive). By August 1991 it was manditory that all rail cars be tagged with RFID.

Perhaps the first industrial application of barcode was a system developed in 1969 by Computer Identics (see US Patent 3673389 and US Patent 3743819) for General Motors to keep track of automobile axials in inventory.

The event that really got bar code into industrial applications occurred September 1, 1981 when the United States Department of Defense adopted the use of Code 39 for marking all products sold to the United States military. This system was called LOGMARS, and is still in use today by the US military.

In September 1982, the United States Postal Service adopted POSTNET barcode as a way to automatically sort mail based on zip code. By Ocyober 1983, the USPS had barcode mail sortation equipment running in 100 major metropolitan areas. The USPS had experimented with barcoded zip codes on business reply mail since 1977

More Resources

In 1992, Joe Woodland received The National Medial Of Technology for his invention of the barcode.

An excellent history of bar codes can be found at the Basics site.

George J. Laurer is the developer of UPC in 1973 and later EAN. There is a history at his site.

Another history at Barcoding.com.

Who Invented Bar Codes? The Irish of Course! Ogham (pronounced "Ohm") alphabet used by the Irish during the first centuries AD really looks like a form of bar code. Take a look at the extensive list of everything about Ogham on the Web.


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