Man scans a damaged barcode

The History of Barcode: From Morse Code to Machine Learning


Barcodes are so commonly used today most people don’t notice them on their products. Yet, they haven’t always been around.

Finding a way to easily manage product inventory has been a concern since 1932 when grocers worked to create a punch-card system as an attempt to manage the process. That idea never came to fruition because it was so expensive and hard to manage.

From the humble beginnings in the mid-20th century to modern AI-enhanced data capture solutions – let’s take a look at the history of barcode:

History of Barcode - 1940s to 1950s

The Idea of Automatically Collecting Product Information

In 1948, Bernard Silver overheard a major food company president discussing a way to automatically collect product information during the checkout process. Along with fellow Drexel Institute grad Norman Joseph Woodland, he would research and develop a linear system and bullseye barcode system. They used components of Morse code to develop it in 1951.

By 1952, they built a barcode reader and received a patent for the barcode system. In 1962, the barcode was purchased by Philco and then later sold to RCA. Five years later, the Association of American Railroads begins using the system as a way to identify their railroad cars. By 1969, General Motors and General Trading Company were using what’s considered the first true barcode system that operates the way we know it today.

History of Barcode - 1970s to 1990s

Heading to the Grocery Stores

Over the coming years, the National Association of Food Chains worked to establish a committee to develop a set of uniform guidelines for the use of barcodes to streamline the process. In 1973, the Universal Product Code (UPC) was developed, which is what creates the first true success for the system. Its use in Kmart stores really helped to make this system more widely accepted.

In 1974, a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum was the first product sold using the barcode system. Ten years later, 33 percent of grocery stores in the U.S. used them. By 2004, a full 80 to 90 percent of the country’s top 500 companies were using barcodes.

In 1994, QR Codes were created. These were developed by Denso Wave, a part of Toyota. The goal of QR codes originally was to have a simple way to track auto parts and vehicles themselves.

A Continued Level of Change and Growth

There’s no doubt barcode technology is continuing to change with the times. It wasn’t long ago that the red, “death ray” laser beam, feared for a long time to cause cancer, was used as a way to create a hand-held, gun-style scanner for cashiers to use.

Today, barcodes are being used in new ways. For example, it’s now possible to scan barcodes like this into a simple smartphone app. When done, the computer within can produce virtually any information on that product from the calories it has to where it was made, depending on a person’s need.

Mobile devices are the next generation, enabling systems in warehouses to automatically gather information via machine learning as products move through assembly lines or packing systems. From consumer use to highly automated systems, barcode technology is nothing short of exceptional when it comes to managing inventory and information.

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