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You see them everywhere; those creepy looking set of lines staring back at you when you go out to pick up some groceries from the supermarket. Yes, I am talking about barcodes.
It’s hard to imagine a world without barcodes. It seems like they’ve been around since the beginning of time. So, what are their origin?
Well, it all started because food vendors were tired of how time consuming and tedious it was to keep track of their stock and prices. There must be an effective solution! So Bernard Silver from The Drexel Institute of Technology and his student Joseph Woodland were tasked with the challenge of finding a feasible solution to the problem faced by many food vendors. Soon after, the pair realized that the answer lied in ultraviolet rays, scanners and ink.
Woodland was the one who came up with the brilliant idea. Legend has it that he was doodling drawings on the beach until, eureka, or shall I say, bull’s-eye! The first barcode prototype was in the shape of a bull’s-eye. He discovered the use of ultraviolet sensitive ink, which was used to print the world’s first barcode prototype.
Unfortunately, the prototypes were too expensive and unstable for printing patterns but Woodland wasn’t about to give up yet. He was convinced that it was a workable idea and he gave up his job at the Institute to focus on the barcode solution. The concept was simple, he wanted to create a simple symbol that, when scanned, would translate into numbers that could be read and identified by a computer.
Neither Silver or Woodland were able to make any money from their barcode invention, which, at that time was called “The Classifying Apparatus Method”. This is because they sold the patent of their research to RAC for a very small amount.
In 1973, The National Association of Food Chains (NAFC), which was basically a board of supermarket executives that was led by a friendly old chap named Alan Haberman, called for equipment that would help speed up the checkout process. They contacted a long list of companies to help them come up with a solution. Ideally, the supermarket giants wanted some kind of scannable symbol in place to move people through the checkout lines faster.
That was when George Laurer appeared. He was tasked with making Woodland’s circular “Classifying Apparatus and Method” work. He didn’t think that the circular bulls-eye pattern would fulfill the specifications set forth by the grocery industry so, after months of strenuous research and many cups of coffee, Laurer came up with a rectangular design that was able to fit in more code into less space.
The grocery industry accepted Laurer’s new and improved rectangular barcode design and gave him their unanimous approval. They renamed his barcode invention as the Universal Product Code (UPC) before releasing it for commercial usage a year later, in 1974. That was when a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum became the first item to be scanned with the barcode on it.
Since that day, the original barcode design has inspired a whole lot of other barcodes that are used for many different things. There is the Code 128, which is generally used for packaging and shipping and then there’s POSTNET, which is used to sort out mail at post offices. Barcodes even appear in radio frequencies as they are needed for sending out data.
Last but not least, lets not forget the all too familiar QR (“quick response”) code. They can be scanned by your mobile phone using a number of apps and it usually link you to a website or a video for promotional and advertisement purposes. These things are popping up everywhere and people actually experiencing “QR fatigue” because of it.