A Brief History of the Bar Code

Written by Michele Wheat

Every time a consumer makes a purchase in a grocery or other retail store, they encounter a bar code. The bar code, which is affixed to merchandise, is a series of lines or bars that contain data about the item, such as the price. This simple data source is something that is often taken for granted; however, it is crucial for keeping track of inventory and greatly aids and simplifies the checkout process for both consumers and retailers. Its invention was ground-breaking and changed merchandising forever. The history of bar code technology is an interesting one and can help consumers to understand this small piece of technology better.

Who Invented the Bar Code?

Bar codes were first invented by graduate students Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver. The seed to create the system was planted by a discussion between a Drexel Institute of Technology dean and a supermarket manager. The conversation, which was overheard by Silver in 1948, was about the store manager's desire to create a way to speed up the checkout process. Silver discussed the conversation with Woodland, who had also received an education at Drexel, and sparked his creative interest. While sitting on the beach in Florida trying to work out the system, Woodland came up with the idea as he drew lines in the sand. Unfortunately, the lasers needed to put this idea into practice had not yet been invented, so his design could not immediately be used.

Inventing and Patenting the Bar Code

Silver and Woodland first considered a bar code system using fluorescent ink dots, but the concept proved unworkable because it was too expensive and the ink was too unstable. They moved on to another idea using both a linear and a bull's-eye grouping of lines, which they filed a patent for in 1949. The technology used thin and wide lines inspired by the Morse Code system of dots and dashes. The device for reading these codes was inspired by movie sound system designs of the 1920s. The patent was granted in 1952, but the technology was deemed not yet feasible. They eventually sold the patent for their bar code idea to a company named Philco in 1962.

First Use of Bar Codes

The first important use of bar codes came in the early 1960s when MIT graduate David J Collins applied the technology to identifying railroad freight cars. Laser technology advanced in the late 1960s, enabling Collins and his Computer Identics Corporation (CIC) to develop more advanced technology for reading bar codes. In 1969, CIC put to use the first true bar-code-reading computer devices, one of which went to a General Motors plant located in Pontiac, Michigan, and the other to General Trading Company's distribution center in Carlsbad, New Jersey. Then, in the 1970s, bar code technology came to the grocery store industry when it was shown that merchants could save millions of dollars by implementing it. The scanning of a package of Wrigley chewing gum in 1974 marked the beginning of the widespread adoption of bar codes.

How it Works

Bar codes fundamentally work by labeling a product or package with a machine-readable graphic that contains encoded data about the object in question. The implementation of this system varies. For instance, traditional Universal Product Code (UPC) bar codes use a system of wide and narrow vertical lines, while matrix or 2-D bar codes, also known as Aztec Codes, are graphics that use a pattern of pixels around a bull's-eye. The Intelligent Mail bar code system uses vertical lines of varying length rather than varying width. Some bar codes, such as Aztec Codes, can be read by camera-enabled cell phones and are patented for implementation and use in the public domain.

  • Bar Code 60th Anniversary: Visit Drexel University's bar code history page to read a short article about former university students Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver, the two men who invented bar code technology.
  • Six Lessons on Innovation From the History of the Bar Code: Click this link to read the history of bar code technology over the decades. Inc. Magazine offers its opinions on what entrepreneurs should learn from related developmental milestones.
  • Remembering Joe Woodland, the Man Who Invented the Bar Code: Go to this page by Wired Magazine to read about the life and achievements of Joseph Woodland. Highlights include his work with bar codes as well as his time as a juror.
  • The Patent Troll You Don't Read About in Bar-Code Inventor's Obituaries: Read about the relationship between Woodland's invention and Jerome Lemelson's related patents. This article by Forbes discusses how Lemelson sued companies for patent infringement and became known as the world's first patent troll.
  • Engines of Our Ingenuity: Bar Code: Go to this page to read a short history about Silver and Woodland's invention of the bar code.
  • Bar Codes Sweep the World (PDF): The evolution of bar code technology from a mere idea in 1948 to one of the most commonly seen elements of modern society is the subject of this article.
  • History of the Bar Code: Read an in-depth article about the history of the bar code here. It talks about everything from the original bull's-eye design to modern developments such as the Uniform Product Code (UPC) and the new 2D bar code, also known as the Quick Response (QR) code.