The other day, I was doing my shopping. As I was using the Self-checkout, always searching where the barcodes are on every item, I naturally started thinking about who would have the idea to invent such a thing—you may have noticed, I’m always asking that question, that’s why I created this blog! Well, here’s the answer!
Who Invented the Barcode?
The short and not complete answer is: the barcode was invented by Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver and patented in the US in 1951. Of course, I should have begun with a definition, what is a barcode?
If we are to believe merriam-webster.com: “it’s a code consisting of a group of printed and variously patterned bars and spaces and sometimes numerals that is designed to be scanned and read into computer memory and that contains information (such as identification) about the object it labels.”
So, how did Woodland and Silver think of that?
From Miami Beach to IBM, the idea of the barcode
If we are to believe Norman Woodland, he was just sitting on the beach, running his fingers through the sand. He had learned the Morse code as a Boy Scout and was making dot and dash marks. That’s when he got the idea:
“What I’m going to tell you sounds like a fairy tale. I poked my four fingers into the sand and for whatever reason, I didn’t know, I pulled my hand toward me and drew four lines. I said: ‘Golly! Now I have four lines, and they could be wide lines and narrow lines instead of dots and dashes’. Only seconds later I took my four fingers, they were still in the sand, and I swept them around into a full circle.”
Of course, he was already searching for a system. Everything started in 1948 with Bernard Silver. He was then a graduate student at Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (US), where he overheard the president of Food Fair, a local food chain, asking one of the deans to research for a system that would provide a simple way to put codes on products, for easy sorting, pricing, and checking-out, a way to automatically read product information during checkout.
Next, Silver started exploring the idea with his friend Norman Joseph Woodland (who taught at Drexel), and they began working on a variety of systems. Barcode was not the first concept they developed. They thought of a system that would use ultraviolet ink—they quickly realized the ink faded too easily and it was just too expensive to work. During the next winter, Woodland spent time at his grandparents’ home in Miami, and he went to the beach.
In October 1949, Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver filed an application for a patent for their invention. At that time, the barcode was not exactly as it is today. Woodland ended up using a pattern containing a series of concentric circles, resembling tree-rings, with the width of the ring being used to encode the information. That version called bull’s-eye barcode was sold for $15,000 to the company Philco.
In 1951, Woodland joined IBM and was hoping to develop further his idea, but the technology needed was not here then (The first laser was built in 1960 by Theodore H. Maiman).
The Search for a Universal Product Code
By the mid-1960s, the supermarket industry was still searching for a solution to the same problem the president of Food Fair introduced almost twenty years earlier. In fact, the Kroger Company, which ran one of the largest supermarket chains in North America, published a brochure in 1966 expressing the need for it: “Just dreaming a little … could an optical scanner read the price and total the sale… Faster service, more productive service is needed desperately. We solicit your help.”
The first response to this cry for help came from a small research team at Radio Corporation of America (RCA) who acquired the Woodland/Silver patent from Philco and started working with the bull’s-eye barcode. The technology was finally available to make it work, but there were still big challenges. The most important being that printing the bull’s-eye bar code proved to be really difficult. Any imperfections rendered the system unusable. The RCA found creative solutions to most of their problems and, on July 3rd, 1972, the first automated checkstands were installed at the Kroger Kenwood Plaza store in Cincinnati. It worked great, but it was not universal.
With that in mind, the National Association of Food Chains (NAFC) officially began its search for a Universal Product Code (UPC). RCA was ready to take the lead, but IBM entered the competition. Norman Joseph Woodland was still working at IBM (Silver died in 1962), but it was another man who cracked the code: George Laurer. First, he had the idea to use stripes to materialize the barcode. Then, Laurer developed a scanner that could read codes digitally. By using low-cost laser and computing technology, he created a cheap and reliable solution that could become “universal.”
In 1973, IBM introduced the UPC to grocery manufacturers. It could only work if at least 70% of the grocery’s products had the barcode printed on the product. Less than that, there would have been no cost savings. It took a long time to achieve that. In fact, it was deemed a failure by Business Week in 1976. There were still scanning machines in fewer than 200 grocery stores in 1977. At the beginning of the 1980s, the barcode was finally widely used.
You can also read about who invented the QR Code.