The Fascinating History of Barcode Scanners

May 10th 2018 15:00:00 PM

Have you ever looked up the history of barcodes and barcode scanners? It’s a story filled with school drop outs, tough competition, a few false starts, and a stunning success at the end. In fact, it’s got all the makings of a tense tech thriller just like the Steve Jobs story—and yet very few people have heard how barcodes were invented.

We assure you, it’s worth a read.

Not into history lessons? Plan for your business future by leveraging barcodes at your manufacturing or distribution company. Contact Scanco online or at (330) 645-9959 for your free consultation.

Barcode Scanners: The Beginning

Before the barcode, there were different, inefficient methods of trying to track things. The most common practice was to shut your store down entirely and count every piece of merchandise by hand. This resulted in lost revenues due to downtime, plus labor overtime.

One day in 1948, Bernard Silver, a grad student at Drexel Institute of Technology, overheard a conversation between the owner of a local chain grocery store and the college’s dean. The grocery store owner was pleading with the dean to fund research into a solution that would track inventory. The dean denied the grocery store owner’s request, but Bernard, an enterprising young man, decided to follow up. He went to go see his good friend Norman Joseph Woodland.

Woodland, also a student (and a teacher) at Drexel, was fascinated and the two students came up with a few solutions that could work. One such solution was ultraviolet ink, which lit up under ultraviolet light. This solution seemed promising at the outset, but the ink had a troublesome habit of fading, so it couldn’t handle aging inventory.

Obsessed with finding a solution, Woodland decided to drop out of school, so he could better focus on his research.

After dropping out of school, Woodland spent his time on the beach (who wouldn’t?). He would sit for long hours in the sun, thinking of ways to track inventory. (Apparently, he wasn’t too into the idea of dating.) At one point, he dragged his fingers through the sand … and suddenly the solution came to him: he could make wide and narrow lines, which would be a lot like the dots and dashes of Morse code. Eureka!

Honestly, we can’t make this stuff up, people.

Early Barcoding: The “Bulls-Eye Code” and Beyond

When Woodland drew his fingers across the sand, he actually drew the lines in a circle pattern. He called this early barcoding system the “Bulls-Eye Code” and he chose to use a circle so that the pattern could be scanned in any direction. (This would be handy, had we kept this.)

Since lasers didn’t exist in 1949 when he developed the barcode, Woodland also developed a ridiculously complex, light-based system for scanning the codes. (We could explain this, but it would bore you to tears. Suffice to say, it was kind of like a light box and a movie projector put together. In other words: it was unusable.) This impossible scanning system pretty much stopped the barcode in its tracks and, though Woodland maintained his interest after he later started working for IBM, no one but him had any interest in further developing the barcode. It wasn’t until later, when computers developed further, that the barcode would return.

In essence, Woodland and Silver were waaay ahead of their time.

A Developing Timeline for Barcode Solutions

By 1962, technology still hadn’t caught up with the possibilities of barcoding, but the idea was starting to catch on. That’s when Woodland and Silver sold the patent to Philco for a whopping $15,000. Only one year after that, Silver died at the age of 38. Later, Philco sold the patent to RCA.

Interest in barcode technology was growing—and one of the most interested industries was railroads. Then, as now, railcars would travel all over the country and they were also loaned out for use by other lines. As early as the 1960s, the railroads knew that with barcoding technology, they’d be able to better and more efficiently track their freight cars. Though the railroads came up with a workable barcoding solution, no one thought to tell the grocery stores.

While barcodes were a great invention, they were still a niche product.

A Blast Forward for Barcodes: The Invention of the Barcode Scanner

In the early 70s, Computer Identics developed the barcode scanning technology that would change the world. It was based on lasers, which solved the problem of the impossible-to-use technology that Woodland invented … but lasers weren’t much better. The public feared them, and they weren’t doing well on the market.

Until, suddenly, the dots connected.

At a grocery tradeshow in 1971, RCA displayed an “ID scanning” tool gimmick; customers who successfully scanned an RCA tin with the ID scanner would win a prize. IBM happened to also be in attendance at the tradeshow and saw the tool’s popularity. After the tradeshow, IBM began to follow up on the growing interest in barcode technology—and they intelligently transferred Woodland, so he could lead the barcode development team.

The 1970s and 1980s: The Barcode Scanning Race Is On

Then, a lot of things happened in quick succession.

  • 1972: RCA works with Kroger grocery stores on an 18-month test of the Bulls-Eye Code. The test shows that the printing process can sometimes smear the barcodes, which makes the codes unreadable.
  • 1972-1973: Woodland and his IBM team are working on a series of black bars that, even if the ink smears, would still show the same code. This is called the UPC (Universal Product Code), and it’s the system we all know and love today. (Well, we love barcodes, and once you start using them, you’ll love them too.) The National Association of Food Chains accepted the UPC as the industry standard on April 3, 1973.
  • 1974: A packet of Wrigley’s gum is the first product scanned with a GS1 barcode. It’s scanned in a Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio.
  • 1977: 200 stores use barcode scanner technology. Most companies weren’t buying in because barcodes were really, really expensive, but the stores that had implemented the technology had such overwhelming success that other companies were almost forced into making the change. Barcode scanners, alone, had a reported ROI of 41.5%. (Even now, barcodes are still incredibly time-saving and have an incredible ROI, by the way.)
  • 1980: Over 8,000 stores per year were converting to barcode technology because of its proven success.
  • 1989: Scanco is formed and now, nearly 30 years later, we’re still helping manufacturers and distributors use barcodes and barcode scanners to increase their efficiency and streamline their operations.

What an exciting run it’s been!

Barcode Scanners: Still a Stunning Success Today

In our nearly 30 years of experience spent solving manufacturing and distribution challenges using barcodes, barcode scanners, and newly developed scanning technologies such as NFC and RFID, Scanco is proud to say we’ve helped thousands of world-class companies work smarter and faster.

In 1948, when Norman Joseph Woodland pioneered the idea of barcodes, he probably didn’t fully understand how much the technology would change the world but, for many companies, doing business today without barcode scanners is almost impossible to imagine.

What could you accomplish with better, faster barcode scanners?

Contact Scanco online or at (330) 645-9959 to get information and advice about the next generation of affordable barcode scanner options for Sage, NetSuite, and Acumatica ERP.



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