Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Barcodes have been the mainstay of the consumer world for close to 40 years, first used on a food product in 1974 when Wrigley´s chewing gum received the first barcode (the predecessor to the Universal Product Code, or UPC). But the linear displays of bars and lines have been in use elsewhere since the early 1950s, initially as a code to label railroad cars.
The idea for a barcode was first conceived in 1948 by Bernard Silver, a graduate student at Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia, after overhearing the president of a local food chain, Food Fair, inquiring about a system that could automatically read product information at the checkout line. Silver began working with colleague Norman Joseph Woodland.
After initial results proved futile, Drexel had stopped funding for the research. Woodland, refusing to give up, moved into his father´s apartment in Florida and continued working on the system, where he became inspired by the Morse Code system, and formed his first barcode on a sandy beach.
“I just extended the dots and dashes downwards and made narrow lines and wide lines out of them,” Woodland recently recalled.
To read this barcode, Woodland adapted technology from optical soundtracks used in movies, using a 500-watt light bulb shining through the paper onto an RCA935 photomultiplier tube from a movie projector on the far side. After fine-tuning their work, Woodland and Silver filed a patent in October 1949 for “Classifying Apparatus and Method.” The patent, spending nearly 3 years in the approval process, was issued on October 7, 1952.
Today, 60 years after the barcode was first patented, there are more than 5 million individual barcodes in use around the world, according to regulator GS1 UK. However, the barcode remained absent from food labels for the first 20+ years of existence because laser technology used to read them did not exist in the 50s.
The barcode is an optically-scannable representation of data that relates to a specific object to which it is attached. While it began showing up on food products in the mid 70s, it did not receive a universal welcome–wine manufacturers refused to use it on their labels for aesthetic reasons–taking away from the artistic appeal of bottle.
Recently, the linear barcode received a baby brother, the Quick Response (QR) Code. While the new and improved code, made up of dots, can contain far more information and data than the traditional barcode, it is unlikely to replace the barcode anytime soon.
“They have different purposes – the barcode on the side of a tin of beans is for point-of-sale scanning. It ensures the consumer is charged the right amount and updates stock records,” said Gary Lynch, chief executive of GS1 UK. “The QR code’s main purpose is to take the person that scans it to an extended multi media environment. Technically you can combine the two but nobody’s asking for that right now.”
The QR Code, which has become synonymous with mobile media, was invented in Japan in 1994 as a way to track vehicles during the manufacturing process.
Through the years, many different types of codes have been developed, but none as popular and well-known as the UPC barcode and quickly advancing QR code.
As for the barcode, it has become a pop culture icon of sorts. Nebraska artist Scott Blake has used barcodes to design detailed works of art, including a portrait of famous American artist Andy Warhol using more than 2,100 barcodes. The barcode has also shown up as body art, with US singer Pink sporting a barcode tattoo.
“Barcodes are an icon and rightly so – we’re quite pleased about it,” said Lynch. “But if one of my daughters had one in homage to her father I’d be rather upset.”