The Invention of the Bar Code Scanner

Supermarkets and warehouses across the globe are participating in the ever-growing game of bar code scanning. Bar codes are used more often than not and for most items that you typically surround yourself with. Any item that is bought within a major grocery store, online, or go through warehouse processing will undergo some sort of scanning process in order to keep managers and those in charge informed of either an increase or decrease in a given numerical value associated with inventory.

A bar code, or universal product code (UPC), is a quick and efficient way of entering numerical data into a computer. These codes are used in both supermarkets and warehouses alike and provide a less than stressful process when counting and keeping track of various inventory classifications. If you’re an avid shopper or at least familiar with the labels affixed to a given item then you are aware of the strange appearance bar codes share. On the surface, these hidden codes appear to be nothing but vertical white and black lines. However, when analyzing these intricate codes from a closer level we are able to understand exactly how they function.

To further explain, these vertical lines, or codes, represent specific bits of information that is then scanned by a laser before being transmitted and interpreted by a computer. The black vertical lines of a given bar code do not reflect laser light very well therefore each line is read as a one, 1, by a computer system while the white vertical lines reflect laser light extremely well and are read as a zero, 0. Each section of a bar code is further divided into seven vertical modules that consist of individual bars and spaces. Each group of these seven bars and spaces is then interpreted by a computer as being one single number. As an example, the number one is represented as “0 0 1 1 0 0 1” or “space, space, bar, bar, space, space, bar”. Collectively, the numbers on the right hand side of the bar code are the optical opposites of those on the left hand side. For example, the opposite of the number “1” (which was “0 0 1 1 0 0 1” or “space, space, bar, bar, space, space, bar”) is recognized as “bar, bar, space, space, bar, bar, space” or “1 1 0 0 1 1 0”.

A single bar code represents a twelve digit number. These numbers represent many things such as: the product type (first digit), the manufacturer code (the next five digits that make up the left half of the set of digits), product code (the following five digits that make up the right half of the set of digits), and the check digit (the very last number). This number is often located directly below the bar code of any given store-bought item and is often shown numerically as a precaution in case the vertical bar code were to become unreadable. This coding is necessary in order to make sure that the wrong information isn’t being translated into the computer system thus labeling a specific item as another.

Taking a step back in history allows us to analyze the bar code scanner and determine how exactly it came to be. It was in 1932 when a business student named Wallace Flint first proposed a system which advocated the use of punch cards in order to enable shoppers to get “checked out” in a more timely manner. Flint suggested the use of punch cards by store grocers in order to deal with the influx of customers that dominated heavily populated regions around the world. The concept of using punch cards was first developed in 1890 and had been initially used for the U.S. census as a way to keep track of United States citizens. Flint believed that this system could be used in order to give store management a well-kept record of what was being bought, however there were a few problems with this method. The equipment needed for card-reading was equally both bulky and expensive so nothing came out of this initial proposal. However, Flint’s consumer concerns would later pave the way for modern scanning technology.

The first step towards creating the bar code took place in 1948 when a graduate student named Barnard Silver overheard a conversation in the halls of Philadelphia’s Drexel Institute of Technology. The conversation happened between the president of a food chain and one of the school deans. The president was concerned about store checkout speeds and wanted to conduct research on a system which would capture specific product information ‘automatically’. The president’s request was denied by the dean however this didn’t stop Silver from mentioning what he overheard to one of his friends, Norman Joseph Woodland. Having no idea of the influence he would later have on these scanning devices, Woodland then became interested in the concept and immediately took to the books.

Woodland’s first idea was to use pink patterns that would glow under ultraviolet light. To complete this task, Silver and Woodland joined forces to build a device that would be used to test this ultraviolet concept. In the end, the project was extremely successful however the men experienced a few problems such as ink instability and financial concerns which were associated with the costs of pattern-printing. After dedicating several months to hard-work and sleepless nights, Woodland finally came up with the linear bar code. This linear code was created through Woodland’s meshing of two previously established technologies: the sound system and Morse code.

This linear bar code made use out of the Lee de Forest’s sound system from the early 1920’s. Lee de Forest was an American inventor and Electrical Engineer who has since been credited with developing the Audion, an audio vacuum-tube device that helped AT&T establish coast-to-coast signals and one that is still used in modern televisions, radios, and other sound systems. Soon after Woodland began putting together a patent application at Drexel, Silver investigated what form the new codes should take. On October 20, 1949, Woodland and Silver filed their official patent application.

In 1951, Woodland landed a job with International Business Machines (IBM) and set out with his partner, Silver, the following year in order to begin building the first bar code reader. This initial device had been the size of a desk and needed to be wrapped in dark oilcloth in order to keep out excess light. This device relied on two key components: a five-hundred-watt incandescent bulb as its light source and an RCA 935 photo-multiplier tube, a device used for the light detection of very weak signals that was initially designed for movie sound systems, as the reader. A year later, in October 1952, the patent of Woodland and Silver had been granted. After a failed attempt at trying to persuade IBM to hire a consultant to evaluate bar codes, the pair’s patent had been on the verge of expiration. However, IBM did attempt to buy the patent but to no avail. PHILCO, an electronics company, bought the patent in 1962 and then later sold it to RCA in 1971. Since then, the bar code scanner has undergone various changes within its own evolution.

One of the later interpretations of the bar code scanner included a system created by David J. Collins. Being a graduate from MIT, Collins had a knack for implementing new strategies in order to accomplish tricky tasks. Collins came up with a strategic system that assisted railroad companies through the automatic tracking of freight cars. Each car was designated a four-digit number that served to identify the railroad which owned it and an additional six-digit number whose purpose was to identify a specific car.

Through rigorous years of failed attempts and disregarded concepts a breakthrough had finally been made. On June 26, 1974, a supermarket in Troy, Ohio sold a pack of Juicy Fruit chewing gum which was the first item to have ever been scanned by a bar code scanner. After this historical moment the use of scanners slowly started to climb. It wasn’t until the late 1970s when sales of these systems started to flourish. The invention of the bar code scanner has since made things much more convenient for the average shopping consumer. There is no longer a need for cashiers and store clerks to manually record transactions. Even though wait lines still take quite a bit of time to get through they aren’t as bad as they have been in the past.

Today, small businesses are able to thrive by keeping lists of their inventory. Meanwhile, larger stores require more extensive lists that are highly ordered and organized in order to keep count of brands and “stock keeping units” or SKUs. These stores and major companies are the ones that find comfort and daily use in bar codes and scanners and keep the technology alive and thriving. When a store manager or owner needs to acquire information on a certain product, all they have to do is scan its bar code.

We know where bar codes have brought us but we have yet to comprehend where exactly it will lead us. The future of bar codes may even include DNA bar coding. The International Bar code of Life (IBL) is a project that is currently underway and one that aims to compile a catalog of all species that inhabit the Earth. As of late, researchers have already begun using bar codes to scan mating habits of insects. This only further proves that new inventions and technologies are forever enhancing and expanding both convenience and experience.