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The Barcode


Did you know that a desperate plea from an upset supermarket manager led to the invention of the barcode? — you know, the series of vertical lines or bars and spaces or perhaps the small label with black and white stripes we see everyday affixed in almost every merchandise found in retail stores, ID cards, admission tickets, etc. Well, you see, before its invention, the only way to get accurate list of items was through manual counting.  So in a supermarket, just imagine how each item on shelves and in the back storage had to be counted one by one!  The process was truly time consuming; hence, most managers don’t do inventories that often and would just resort to rough estimates.


The concept for the barcode, as mentioned previously, was from an appeal by a supermarket manager to think of an innovation that would speed up the process of checking out and inventory.  The manager made this request to a dean at Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia.  Although the dean dismissed the idea, Bernard Silver, who was a junior post graduate overheard the conversation and pitched the concept to Joe Woodland, a teacher/inventor in the institute.  Joe Woodland took on the challenge and the rest as they say is history.

The barcode’s vertical bars and spaces originated from the Morse Code as inspired by what Woodland learned when he was a Boy Scout.  Woodland recounts how he was thinking of dots and dashes.  But instead of dots and dashes, Woodland, extended them creating narrow and wide lines.  To read the barcode, they adopted the DeForest movie sound system using reflected light that converts into numbers.  This became the first linear barcode.  Both Woodland and Silver filed for a patent in 1949.

In June 26, 1974, the first item marked with the Universal Product Code was scanned at the cashier of Troy’s Supermarket.  It was a 10-pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum.

Since the barcode’s creation in 1948, it was only in the 1980’s that it became popular in grocery stores and retail businesses.  At present, besides keeping track of sales and inventory, barcodes have become useful in so many ways including keeping track of complex operations involving not only of supplies, but people and facilities as well.

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