Five Fun Facts Concerning the Invention of Barcodes

June 23, 2015Diana Lengerson

The invention of barcodes started around 1948 when the owner of a grocery store chain asked Drexel University to do a study on how to make the checkout process easier and more efficient. The goal was to create a code that included information like the name, description, and price of the product. Unfortunately, Drexel University did not want to take on such a study.

Bernard Silver, having been aware of this request, later left Drexel University and began developing the first barcode system. He first tried to use different patterns of ink that would be scanned by ultraviolet light. The problem with this technique was that the ink would easily rub off. The implementation of barcodes would still take a few more years of refinement.

Luckily for us though, barcodes prevailed and revolutionized the way businesses operate.

Fun Fact #1: Barcodes were fully developed by the railroad industry

Railroad companies saw the importance of setting up a system that would make it easier for them to identify incoming trains. The electrical system would ensure that trains would not collide with each other, which was, as one would expect, a major concern for railroad companies. With the creation of a special code system, each train that was passing through a certain train stop was identified and logged.

The individuals who created these special codes were David Collins and Norma Woodland. The barcodes were not made of numbers, but of different colors like orange, blue, and yellow. The different forms of patterned colors represented different trains from across the world. Though IBM was interested at the time, a purchase price could not be agreed upon and it was later RCA who purchased the patent for this system, which went on to identify its first train on the Pacific Railroad Line in 1969.

Fun Fact #2: Morse code was a key inspiration for the modern barcode

Norman Woodland, a student of Drexel, was fascinated about finding an easier way to catalog grocery store goods. He thought of using Morse code to perfect this system. He believed using the symbols from Morse code would make it easier for grocers to label and categorize store items. The system would make it simple for the grocer to identify store products and perform checkouts for customers.

Norman Woodland began working on his invention in 1949 and later patented his special code system in 1952. Mr. Woodland almost lost his patent in 1969 after failing to renew it. He even had trouble trying to sell the patent, if you can believe it.

Fun Fact #3: The first barcode reader was developed by employees of IBM

David Collins and Norman Woodland were not only Drexel University students; they worked for IBM as well. They invented the first barcode reader in the living room of Woodland’s New York home — a barcode reader that was a huge and oversized desk. It had to be protected from ultraviolet light by being wrapped in an oilcloth.

This oversized desk barcode reader was still too much for even grocery and retail stores to effectively use, and it took too much effort to operate it. While IBM wasn’t willing to purchase the patent for the huge barcode, RCA saw potential for the Woodland and Collins bar code reader. The huge bar code reader could be used by railroad companies to monitor the coming and going of trains from various stops. The result was the system of color bars mentioned (and pictured) above.

Fun Fact #4: The first numbered barcode was developed for GM

RCA not only used the first barcode reader (with colors) for railroads in 1969, they had their inventors create a barcode reader that used numbers to identify products that were being made by a car manufacturing company. The first numbered barcode reader was used by an automobile plant in 1972 to identify brake axles created by General Motors plant in Michigan.

The barcode reader even assisted the General Motors plant with shipping the brake axles to different plants for assembly. The barcode reader made it easy for General Motors to ship their parts to different plants and track their distribution and use. With the adoption of the barcode reader, General Motors was able to make their vehicles in a more efficient and cost-effective.

Fun Fact #5: The first retail product to use a barcode was a pack of gum

RCA helped to bring barcodes into the grocery store in the mid-1970s, making grocery shopping more efficient, both for consumers and retailers. The barcode developed by RCA made it easy for grocery stores to stock their goods and products. Grocery stores were then able to provide better service to their customers, and computerized systems soon followed to track inventories, as well as consumer information and buying habits.

In 1971, RCA did a demonstration of their new barcode at a Kroger Supermarket. The first item to be scanned using a barcode was a pack of Juicy Fruit Gum. RCA changed the face of retail that day in a way we all reap the benefits of, even as we barely have to think about it.

RCA took the lead from IBM and were the pioneers in barcode invention and development. RCA was willing to take a risk with Collins and Woodland’s idea of the barcode reader back in 1949, and we handle the results of that investment, and indeed we benefit from it, every day.

Whether you’re a consumer buying that pack of Juicy Fruit or an entrepreneur ordering your first set of barcodes from, think of all the barcodes that are a part of your day-to-day, and imagine if you had to spend even an extra two minutes on every one of those transactions.

Lautaro Martinez is a freelance writer and professional student who contributes articles and insights into various issues and trends affecting the business community and aspiring entrepreneur.

Photograph by Quinn Rossi, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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