How Drawing a Line in the Sand Changed Everything
Until roughly half a century ago, managing and tracking inventory was an incredibly cumbersome task for grocery stores. To determine exactly what products were in stock, store managers had to shut down operations and manually count every single item.
In 1948, the president of a Philadelphia-based food chain pleaded with a dean in the hallway of the Drexel Institute of Technology, asking him to undertake research into solutions for automatically capturing product information. The dean declined, but Bernard Silver overheard the conversation, mentioning it to his friend and fellow graduate student, Norman Joseph Woodland.
The pair became fascinated by the challenge, initially creating a system using ink patterns and ultraviolet light. Although the platform proved costly and the ink unreliable, Woodland was convinced that he and Silver could develop a workable solution. Quitting Drexel, he cashed in stock and moved to his grandfather’s apartment in Florida to focus on the project.
Sitting in a beach chair and mulling over potential solutions, Woodland drew four dots in the sand, recalling the Morse code he learned as a Boy Scout. Struck by sudden inspiration, he extended the dots downward into a set of parallel lines, creating the world’s first barcode.
A vision ahead of its time
Woodland’s concept was groundbreaking. In fact, it proved to be decades ahead of its time—the technology needed to commercially “read” his code wouldn’t exist for decades.
Woodland did successfully create a device for electronically reading code printed on paper, but its practical application was another matter. The device was the size of a desk, and with the era’s primitive computing technology incorporated, the system would take up an entire section of a grocery store. Plus, its photo-multiplier tube captured only a small fraction of the light emitted by its source, a 500-watt bulb, and it released the rest as costly, uncomfortable heat.
Pressing on, Woodland and Silver received a patent for both the original linear barcode design and a “bullseye” design with code lines in concentric circles. However, the technology necessary to launch barcodes as a viable commercial solution was still many years in the future.
Laser technology changes the game
In the 1960s, David Jarrett Collins began experimenting with coded labels to track railroad cars, which were frequently lent from one railroad line to another. Using groups of reflective orange and blue stripes to represent digits 0 through 9, the solution assigned each car a 4-digit number representing the railroad that owned it and a 6-digit number unique to the car itself. When a car entered a railyard, readers flashed a beam of light onto the stripes to identify it.
Seeing far-reaching applications for the coding solution, Collins pitched the idea for a black-and-white version of the system to his superiors at work. When they passed, he quit and started his own business that focused on incorporating newly available laser technology into a code scanning system.
Collins replaced Woodland’s high-wattage light bulb with helium-neon laser beams capable of scanning code from three inches away or from a distance of several feet. By sweeping back and forth across barcodes hundreds of times a second, the lasers could also read codes from multiple angles to better decipher scratched or torn labels.
In 1969, Collin’s company deployed the first true barcode systems, installing one to monitor axle production in a General Motors plant and another to direct shipments in a distribution facility for the General Trading Company.
The grocery industry drives further progress
In the 1970s, renewed interest in barcode scanning throughout the grocery industry was instrumental in further advancing the solution. Creating a subcommittee to standardize barcode development, the National Association of Food Chains (NAFC) collaborated with consultant McKinsey & Co. to establish an 11-digit code for product identification.
As the owner of the original barcode design patent, RCA Corporation conducted an 18-month pilot project to test the use of bullseye codes at a Kroger supermarket. Discovering that the code’s concentric circles were unreadable if the printing press applied too much ink and smeared the lines, the company determined that the process required a different coding format.
At work on a team at IBM, barcode inventor Norman Joseph Woodland played a prominent role in developing the ultimate solution, the Universal Product Code (UPC). The UPC employed the parallel lines from Woodline’s original concept, eliminating the previous issue with smearing. If a printing run applied too much ink, the barcode simply became “taller”—that is, ink continued flowing out of the top or bottom of the lines without compromising code readability.
A chewing gum sale makes history
The NAFC adopted the UPC as the industry standard, and on June 26, 1974, a supermarket in Troy, Ohio, sold the first-ever product marked with the code—a multi-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum. The purchase launched the current era of barcode usage, in which the codes can be placed on virtually any item.
Extending well beyond its initial applications for grocery chains and other retailers, barcode technology is now at work across industries. Today, healthcare providers use barcode solutions to ensure that patients receive the correct medications. Barcodes enable labs to track blood, cultures, and other specimens to prevent dangerous mix-ups. Companies keep tabs on every component throughout their manufacturing processes to create safe, high-quality products. And biologists tag living organisms to better understand behavior patterns and help protect species.
What can barcode solutions do for your business?
As a global provider of barcode scanning hardware and software, Code Corporation proudly delivers solutions designed to help organizations transform their operations for greater efficiency, safety, and profitability. To learn more about barcode solutions for your enterprise, contact Code.