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Data Identified: The Evolution of the Ubiquitous Barcode

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Short of being stranded on a desert island, it’s virtually impossible to get through a day without encountering a bar code. They mark the products we buy, they encode patient information in hospitals to help eliminate mix-ups, and they allow shipping companies to track the progress of every package. They can also help monitor runners during marathons and let smartphone users check flights or donate to charity at the touch of a screen. They’ve revolutionized industry.

“A lot of times when you talk about a company’s hierarchy, you’re talking about a great big base that builds up like a pyramid. Here, it’s just the opposite,” says Mike Schuett, technical support specialist at Crescent Springs, Ky.-based TL Ashford , which produces IBM i labeling software. “You have these little bar codes and yet the entire institution is built on top of them in terms of the applications, ERP system and so on. I think the future of bar codes is going to be long and bright.”

A bar code system starts with a standardized code representing information like manufacturer, product name, country of origin, etc. A system of symbols, known as symbology, maps the code to a graphical pattern that can be read by a scanner. It’s then sent to a computer that converts the pattern back into the code. Strictly speaking, the term bar code refers to a pattern of narrow and wide lines; today, however, the term is loosely applied to any type of standardized 1-D or 2-D pattern. Nearly 40 years have passed since the first bar code scan yet we are only beginning to scratch the surface of the myriad ways the technology can be applied, in retail, manufacturing, healthcare and more.

The Origins of Automated Identification

In 1948, Bernard Silver, a graduate student at the Drexel Institute of Technology, overheard a grocery executive talking about the need for automated product identification. Silver teamed with fellow graduate student Norman Joseph Woodland to tackle the problem. After experimenting with a system based on ink that fluoresced in UV, the team turned to a simple reflective scanner.

The hardware was only part of the battle. The core value of a bar code is its capability to transfer information, which is a result of the symbology. Silver and Woodland chose to go with a bull’s-eye pattern because the symmetry of concentric rings simplified the job for the readout system. The team received the patent for the concept in 1952, eventually selling it to Philco, which in turn sold it to RCA, where it sat for over a decade, waiting for technology to catch up to the concept.

The need for easy identification and tracking remained across a range of industries, though. David Collins, a student at MIT, had worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad and knew the challenges rail companies faced in monitoring millions of cars across hundreds of thousands of miles of track. Working at Sylvania after graduation, Collins spearheaded the development of the KarTrak Automatic Car Identification System, which was based on a colored pattern of reflective stripes attached to the side of cars and locomotives. Optical scanners at the side of the track read the patterns.

First tested in the early 1960s, the system was later adopted by the Association of American Railroads. Contamination and even normal wear compromised the readability of the codes, however. A flurry of railroad bankruptcies and a stagnant economy coupled with the high cost of computers at the time made the system financially impractical.

Collins, frustrated by Sylvania’s refusal to transfer the technology into other markets, left the company to launch Computer Identics Corp. The new venture aimed to commercialize a system based on a pattern of black and white lines that could be read by a helium-neon laser scanner. Computer Identics tested the first systems in 1969, successfully tracking automobile parts at a GM plant in Michigan and products being aggregated for shipment in the warehouse of the General Trading Company, a New Jersey foodstuffs distributor.

The Birth of the UPC

Meanwhile, the grocery industry’s need for automated product identification had grown. In 1971, it launched a labeling initiative via an umbrella organization called the Uniform Grocery Product Code Council (UGPCC), which requested proposals from top technology companies, including IBM, which had by then employed Woodland.

IBM senior engineer/scientist George Laurer worked with Woodland to tackle the UGPCC proposal. Although strongly encouraged to work with the Silver/Woodland concentric circle design, Laurer became convinced he had to go a different direction—using straight lines.

Laurer’s engineering instincts were correct. The UGPCC selected IBM’s proposal for its standard and the bar code as we know it—the Universal Product Code (UPC)—was born. On June 26, 1974, a cashier named Sharon Buchanan at Marsh’s Supermarket in Troy, Ohio, scanned a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum, changing retail forever.

Initial uptake was slow, due in part to cost and also to the fact that success hinged on the adoption of the technology up and down the food chain, from product manufacturers and distributors to stores. It became quickly apparent, however, that bar coding did far more than just speed the checkout process by around 40 percent. It simplified price changes, eliminated error and delivered a level of visibility into inventory, customer buying habits and the supply chain that provided rapid ROI. By 1980, roughly 8,000 stores per year were converting.

Kristin Lewotsky is a freelance technology writer based in Amherst, N.H.

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