It may be the nerdiest birthday, but today the barcode turns 50.
Do we all see it dozens of times a day? Yes (it is used more times per day than Google worldwide). Any idea how it works? Not really. Do you know who invented it? Probably not.
But as the humble little design that changed the world hits a major milestone, it deserves at least a brief overview of history.
The barcode was originally invented by Norman Joseph Woodland. His first major invention, a system to play elevator music, was squabbled by his father – who believed that the risky field of elevator tunes was controlled by the mafia. Instead, Woodland turned his attention to the more respectable industry of encrypting product data.
It was his time as a Boy Scout that sparked his breakthrough when, after drawing a series of Morse code dots and dashes in the sand on a Miami beach, he stretched them vertically through the sand and drew the first barcode in an instant.
From there, however, he went on to create a circular barcode, similar to a bullseye. It was an IBM colleague, George J Laurer, who turned Woodland’s original sandy rectangle into the ubiquitous design seen on cookies and more around the world. And it was on this day in 1973 that IBM’s Universal Product Code (UPC) was selected by industry leaders to be adopted as a standard.
Just over a year later, on June 26, 1974, a pack of Wrigley’s gum sold in an Ohio supermarket became the first product to be scanned at a checkout with Laurer’s design. The barcode crossed the Atlantic in quintessentially British fashion and first appeared on a box of Melrose tea bags in a supermarket in Spalding, Lincolnshire, in October 1979.
It’s not the first time tea has sparked a revolution, but this one brought down the ranks, not king. In fact, supermarket checkouts sped up by 40%.
Less visible, but more critically, barcodes have been adopted by healthcare systems around the world, reducing both medical errors and time spent on paperwork. Though perhaps not adopted widely enough.
GS1, the world’s only authorized supplier of Global Trade Item Numbers (GTINs) – the unique number that powers each barcode – reports that if the barcode were adopted by every hospital in England, more than 3.2 million hours of staff time and nearly £ 120 million can be saved and reinvested in patient care.
However, it was the biggest health crisis in 100 years that brought barcodes back into the spotlight.
After quickly spreading around the world and transforming shopping and travel (think boarding passes) among other industries, it was natural for this innovative technology to continue to evolve and combine with another revolutionary invention: the Internet.
Enter the quick response code or QR code, a barcode for the digital age. The contactless world of the pandemic, initially seen as a gimmick of sorts, saved these new pixel-based barcodes from extinction as users scanned them for everything from ordering a socially distanced meal to proving their Covid-free status to getting on to go on vacation. (And Soon to be found on all stamps).
All this from a few dots and dashes drawn in the sand.
Anne Godfrey, CEO of GS1 UK, says: ‘Today the barcode is more widely used than Google. It has revolutionized our daily lives in ways most don’t realize: keeping our shelves stocked with products and ingredients from around the world, helping us find and buy products online, making sure that what we consume is real and safe, help the NHS save time, money and lives – and much more.
“Combining two of the most important inventions of the 20th century, the internet and the barcode, the next generation of barcodes – QR codes – will connect physical products to the digital world. This gives consumers access to virtually unlimited, real-time information about the products they buy with the scan of a smartphone, enabling them to make more sustainable, safer and smarter purchasing decisions.”
Leading IBM engineer and master inventor Andy Stanford-Clark added: “The barcode is just one example of many of the retail innovations and technologies IBM has developed over the decades, from the world’s first connected ATM right here in the UK to scanners, automated management systems and even handle 90% of financial transactions in the background, software that is also being developed here in the UK.’
So yes, barcodes definitely fall into the geek category, but they’re also undoubtedly revolutionary. In a Venn diagram, they sit next to Ada Lovelace and Steve Jobs.
Plus, nerds are cool these days, so remember those names for when they inevitably pop up on a pub quiz.
Norman Joseph Woodland and George J Laurer – bigger than Google (sorry Larry, sorry Sergey).
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