History of Barcodes: The Beginning

The history of barcodes from the beginnings to the standardization of the UPC (Universal Product Code).

The very first patents...

One of the first patents, that can be assigned near to the bar code concept, was issued to J.T. Kermode in 1934. This patent described a card sorter, working with an arrangement of four parallel lines as an identification scheme. In 1935 D. A. Young received a patent for a similar sorting machine, identifying the cards with an arrangement of optical marks.

From the roots...

In 1932 Wallace Flint, son of a grocery wholesaler, developed together with a small group of students at the Harvard University a fully automatic distribution system, where customers select products from a catalog over assigned punch cards. Flints proposed system used flow-racks to supply the products to the checkout and included automatic account and stock updating. The concept was economically not feasible, however the advantages of an automated handling in the retail trade (by means of product coding) were described for the first time here globally. Forty years later Flint was vice-president of the National Association of Food Chains and participated actively during the standardization efforts led to the UPC code.
Into the late 1940 Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver investigated the technical methods, in order to read prices in of grocery items automatically at the checkout. These efforts led to an U.S. patent in 1949. This Woodland and Silver patent described a circular pattern with a central point of anchor, more frequently called "Bull’s Eye Code". The concentric rings around the anchor-point are nothing else but bars with defined distances in circular form – the first appearance of our well-known „Barcodes“. With these first symbology, which was based from 4 white lines on dark background, 7 different articles were classifiable. If one extended the system on 10 lines, one could encode already 1023 different articles. The technology and the retail trade were however not yet ready for bar codes. Twenty years later Joe Woodland, in the meantime IBM engineer, participated in that team, which developed the forerunner of the U.P.C. Bar Code. In 1992 he became lent the „National Medal of Technology“ by President Bush. Neither Silver nor Woodland made much cash from their idea, which started a billion-dollar business.

... over various ideas ...

Between at the end of 1950 and at the beginning of 1960 different inventors publicized the construction of "human readable" characters, which should appear readable as bar code for automatic scanners, but to the human eye however as letter or digit. One of these inventors was Girard Feissel, which 1959 registered an U.S. patent, which represents everyone of the digits 0 to 9 by seven parallel bars. Unfortunately such arrangements were to be read more heavily for the machine than "more genuine" bar codes and for humans still as heavily readable than normal digits.

... and many strains ...

Serious efforts to establish a standard for the checkout started in 1966. The NAFC called hardware manufacturers to develop a system for automation of checkout in supermarkets. RCA developed a „Bull’s Eye“ Symbology and Scanner-Devices, which where used in a Kroger-Supermarket in Cincinnati for a 18 month test period in 1972. This project resulted in many useful data for the analysis of the costs and gains, but couldn't put through due to several problems.
In 1969 Logicon, Inc. was asked by the NAFC to make suggestions for an industry-wide bar code system. This resulted in Part1 and 2 of the "Universal Grocery Products Identification Code" (UGPIC) in summer 1970.

Based on the recommendations of the Logicon Report in the middle of 1970 an ad hoc committee of the grocery industry was formed - under the leadership of R. Bert Gookin – to choose the symbol which should be used as their industry standard. This UGPCC Committee (Uniform Grocery Product Code Council) worked out guidelines and a selection of symbologies for this purpose. Proposals of hardware manufacturers were also included. At the end of the process, seven different symbologies came into question for the recommendation. Very solid investigations were started to find out the best fitting symbology including labor tests at Battelle Memorial Institute, printing tolerance tests under the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation, tests of the grocery industry and complete checkout tests in supermarkets.

... to U.P.C. – the new industry standard

Three years later, on 3th April of 1973 this efforts leaded to the U.P.C. (Universal Product Code) as the common industry standard. This final chosen symbology was based on a proposal of IBM (but developed by George J. Laurer). The fast success of the UPC Code in US- and Canadian supermarkets supported foreign, in particular European interests. In Dec 1976 a similar code type - "EAN" (European Article Numbering) was adopted (also developed by G. J. Laurer). The further standardization provides that until 2005 all bar code scanners in the USA must be able to scan also EAN-13 Code.

Sources and Links

THE BAR CODE BOOK, by Roger C. Palmer (3rd Edition, Helmers Publishing, Inc.)
The "Bar Code History Page" - Barcode1 by Russ Adams
Development of the UPC Symbol - George J. Laurer