Barcode: Extraordinary Ordinary Things

The barcode, those unreadable patterns of lines on most products we buy, are ubiquitous to the point of being banal. We see them everywhere, and therefore pay little attention to them. However, not so long ago, you wouldn’t have seen them anywhere. Nevertheless, in their short history (approximately 40 years), they have affected daily life in so many ways that if they suddenly disappeared, we wouldn’t know how to live without them. This is why the barcode unquestionably merits a place on the list of what I call “Extraordinary Ordinary Things.”

Origins of the Barcode

The invention and proliferation of the barcode are closely associated with the invention and proliferation of the cash register, so before looking at the barcode, let’s take a brief look at its indispensable partner.

The invention of the cash register (1883) did not initiate a major change in how we live, but rather reflected a change that was already well underway.

Throughout most of history, people lived in small towns and villages, and made their purchases in individual shops, i.e., bread in a bread shop, milk in a dairy shop, meat in a butcher shop, etc. Merchants had regular customers, most of whom they knew personally. However, the growth of cities affected this fundamental way of life. More and more individual shops began merging into shops with varieties of products and larger numbers of customers, many of whom were unknown to the shopkeeper. Some means of calculating charges and helping people make their purchases more rapidly became increasingly necessary.

The cash register was the solution.  

A cash register is a machine used to calculate the cost (usually price + discounts + taxes) and register an item being bought. Typically, it will also have a drawer to receive and store cash (hence the name “cash register”) to return change to the customer and a printer to print out a receipt for the transaction.

The first mechanical cash register was patented in 1883 by American inventors James Ritty and John Birch, and was little more than a glorified adding machine. The cash register very quickly acquired a distinctive bell sound to signal that the total had been added up and the cash drawer had opened to make the transaction. It was advertised as “the bell heard round the world,” an oblique reference to the first shot in the American Revolution (War for Independence), which had become known as “the shot heard round the world.”

In 1884, businessman John Paterson purchased the patent for the cash register and bought the National Manufacturing Company that sold the device, which he renamed the National Cash Register Company (NCR), then headquartered in Dayton, Ohio. Among the improvements added by Paterson was a paper roll to record sales transactions. This allowed store managers to ensure cashiers charged customers the correct amount for each item and did not pilfer from the cash drawer. Later, a copy of the printed sales record was given to the customer as a receipt.

In 1906, the first cash register with an electric motor was designed by an NCR employee called Charles Kettering. If this name sounds familiar, it is probably because Kettering is best known for his 1911 seminal achievement at General Motors, which was invention of the electric self-starter (ignition) for automobiles to replace the hand-cranked starter.

Invention of the Barcode

The ubiquitous barcode, those black and white lines today found on virtually everything we buy, do more than just help people rapidly get through check-out lines in supermarkets, although by itself this would have been significant. When combined with computer technology, they also help merchants keep track of their stock to ensure that what customers want to buy is always in the store when they want to buy it, which is also significant.

However, the use of barcodes goes far beyond the supermarket, department stores, and other retail outlets where we normally see them. In a very real sense, much of what we buy would not be available in retail shops except for the use of the barcode in many other critical domains of the modern economy, e.g. manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, delivery, stock control, re-ordering, etc.

The concept of the barcode was developed by Norman Woodland in 1949 when he was a student at the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Woodland started by combining ideas from movie soundtracks and elements of Morse code. In 1952 Woodland obtained a U.S. patent on the idea; however, merchants were slow to take it up because early versions of the system proved to be unreliable. This changed in the early 1970s when Woodland successfully combined the original idea with advances in computer and laser technology. Offering greater speed, greater reliability, and better stock control, the new version of the system was launched in 1973. And the rest, as they say, is history.

For those who can still remember, before the advent of the barcode, most of the items in a supermarket had prices stamped on them which the cashier had to ring up manually. This was time-consuming for customers, a strain on the cashier’s fingers, and prone to inputting errors, leading to disputes over incorrect totals. Moreover, printed price tags gave the store no information about how fast stocks of particular items were being depleted and therefore when they needed to be re-ordered or discontinued.

Now with a single swipe across a laser barcode reader, everything is done in a flash. Even better, many stores today offer self-checkout, which allows customers to swipe their purchases across the barcode reader themselves, making the check-out line faster than ever before.

But the story doesn’t end there. In a certain sense, it doesn’t even begin there, because to ensure supplies in supermarkets and to move customers through check-out lines faster, the products they want to buy have to be put into the store in the first place. Once again, barcodes facilitate the process of moving products from manufacturers to warehouses to distributors, and then to the end seller.

The Barcode on the Move

A pioneering use of a barcode-type arrangement, but not actually a barcode, was developed in the late 1960s by GTE (General Telephone and Electronics of Standford, Connecticut). Called KarTrak ACI (automatic car identification), the system consisted of placing colored stripes on steel plates affixed to both sides of railway cars. The arrangement of colored stripes on the two sides of the railway car encoded information such as ownership, type of equipment, identification number, etc. The plates were read by a trackside scanner as the railway car passed by, say, the entrance to a classification yard. Although generating initial excitement, about a decade later the project was abandoned, the system having proved to be unacceptably unreliable after long-term use.

Use of barcodes in supermarkets began in 1974. Following this success, use of barcodes spread to many other identification and control tasks generically referred to as automatic identification and data capture (AIDC).

While other systems made inroads into the AIDC market, simplicity and low cost have helped the barcode reign supreme for more than a quarter-century. However, for many applications, certain newer technologies had also taken a strong foothold, notably radio-frequency identification (RFID) introduced around the year 2000. RFID is a form of wireless communication using electromagnetic or electrostatic coupling in the radio frequency portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to uniquely identify an object, animal, or person.

Use of barcodes has helped to implant and greatly expand a very modern manufacturing process known as “just in time” (JIT).

The idea is simple, but not easy to implement. Rather than producing raw materials or goods, and supplying customers from warehoused stocks, JIT focuses on producing exact amounts of materials a business requires for delivery at exactly the time they are needed.

Barcode technology plays a major role in JIT production by being easily linked with a company’s inventory management database. Thanks to data gleaned by scanning barcodes, the system can easily recognize a particular item is running low, which in turn triggers ordering of raw materials needed to manufacture the item before stocks become depleted.

Types of Barcodes

To the average person, “a barcode is a barcode is a barcode” (homage to Gertrude Stein). However, this is very far from the reality.

It is common to think of barcodes as either one-dimensional (1D) or two-dimensional (2D). This is an error. A so-called one-dimensional barcode in fact has two dimensions (length and width), which is also true of 2D barcodes. It would be more accurate to call 1D barcodes “linear barcodes.” However, the erroneous terminology is already so well implanted, that it would probably be a fool’s errand to try to change it.

Within each category, there are numerous types of barcodes to meet specific purposes.

1D Barcodes

1D barcodes are classified according to their symbologies (patterns), with different symbologies having been developed for different purposes.

They are generally considered to have two basic designs.

  • Continuous. Characters in continuous symbologies are composed of n bars and n spaces, usually with one character ending with a space and the next beginning with a bar, or vice versa.
  • Discrete. Characters in a discrete barcode consist of bars and spaces of two widths, “wide” and “narrow.” The precise width of the wide bars and spaces is not critical. Typically, this is between 2–3 times the width of the narrow bars.
  • Some other symbologies use bars of two different heights, or the presence or absence of bars, i.e., spaces along the bar.

2D Barcodes

The most common 2D symbology is the matrix code, which features square- or dot-shaped modules arranged on a grid pattern. 2D symbologies also come in circular and other patterns and may employ “steganography.” Steganography is the practice of representing information within another message or physical object such that the presence of the information is not evident to human inspection. In short, hiding one module of information inside another.

The 2D barcode can contain many times the information of the simpler 1D (linear) barcode. However, at the outset, they had a distinct disadvantage.

Linear symbologies are optimized for laser scanners, which sweep a light beam across the barcode in a straight line, reading a slice of the barcode’s light-dark patterns. Scanning at an angle makes the modules appear wider but does not change the width ratios. So, before the concept could be commercialized, a new way of practically and reliably scanning 2D barcodes had to be developed.

The problem was solved in the 1990s by the theoretical development of “charge coupled devices.” Considerable work was necessary to convert this new idea into a practical and reliable 2D barcode reader. In the early 2000s, 2D barcode readers had become practical and affordable, giving rise to an almost endless variety of specialized 2D barcodes used for specialized purposes. Probably the most widely used of these, and certainly the most widely known to the general public, is the almost ubiquitous QR (quick response) code, which today seem to be virtually everywhere one looks.

Benefits of Barcodes

The benefits of barcodes can be summarized in two basic categories: 1. retailing (point of sale) and 2. logistics (supply chain management).

In retailing, barcode systems can provide management with detailed, up-to-date information on how the business is performing, thus accelerating crucial decision-making and helping to ensure the decisions taken are the best for the business. For example:

  • Fast-selling items can be identified quickly and automatically reordered.
  • Slow-selling items can be identified, preventing inventory build-up or justifying eventual cancellation.
  • The effects of merchandising changes can be monitored, allowing fast-moving, more profitable items to occupy the best spaces in the shop.
  • Historical data can be used to accurately predict seasonal fluctuations very accurately.
  • Items can quickly be repriced on the shelf to reflect both sale prices and price increases.

Besides sales and inventory tracking, barcodes are very useful in logistics and supply chain management. It is called a supply chain because it consists of a number of vital links needed to get a product from where it is manufactured to where it is offered for sale to the public.

For example:

  • When a manufacturer packs a box for shipment, a scannable barcode known as an unique identifier (UID) can be assigned to the box.
  • A database can link the UID to relevant information about the box; such as order number, items packed, quantity packed, destination, etc.
  • The information can be transmitted through a communication system so the retailer the information about a shipment before it arrives.
  • Shipments that are sent to a distribution center are tracked before forwarding. When the shipment reaches its final destination, the UID gets scanned, so the store knows the shipment’s source, contents, and cost.

Beyond the Lines

By themselves, barcodes are only series of patterns and numbers affixed as identification for a particular item, which can range in size from a single package of noodles in a supermarket to supersized ocean-going container ships. But to be of any practical use, the barcode must be associated with an appropriate barcode scanner.

Today, the term “scanner” fairly trips off the tongue because virtually every time we purchase something, a scanner is involved. But to be more accurate, what is commonly called a scanner should be called a barcode reader, of which the scanner is only one part. The three principal parts of a barcode reader are:

  • Scanner. A hand-held or stationary device that sends out a laser beam to a barcode. The beam is reflected back to a photodiode in the scanner, which, by measuring the reflected light, allows the scanner to capture the data on the barcode.
  • Decoder. A device that converts the data reflected back from the scanned barcode into numbers and/or letters for translation by computer.
  • Computer connection. A link to send the decoded data from the barcode to a computer for further processing.

Fun Facts about the Barcode

  • The basic concept of the barcode is attributed to two Pennsylvania university students, Bernard Silver and Norman Woodland, who suggested the idea in 1949.
  • A practical version of the idea was patented in 1952 by American inventor Norman Joseph Woodland. Inspired by the Morse Code, Woodland drew the first ever barcode in the sand on a Florida beach.
  • The first ever scanning of a barcode in a commercial setting took place in June 1974 at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio. The scanned item was a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum.
  • Barcodes did not take the supermarket industry by storm. Quite the contrary. They were initially so unpopular with supermarket executives that in 1976 Business Week ran an article titled “The Supermarket Scanner That Failed.” The magazine reported that of the thousand stores that were predicted to be using the barcode scanning system by then, only 50 had actually installed them.
  • According to the Barcode Monitoring Center, at least five billion barcodes are scanned every day.
  • Barcodes are scanned with up to a 99.99% success rate. The exact success rate depends on the type of barcode being used, of which there are many.
  • In Seattle, Washington, QR barcodes are inscribed on graves, containing a link to detailed information about the deceased person.
  • The numbers located under the bars (vertical lines) of a barcode may contain the sequence 666. This had led certain sensitive people to complain that the sequence represents the “mark of the beast,” which is associated with the number 666 in the Bible.
  • All barcodes from China start with the number 8 because it is considered to be a lucky number.  
  • The world’s smallest ever scannable barcode was invented to monitor bees and their mating habits. Each separate line of the code had a width of only 0.001 inches (0.00254 centimeters).
  • Two-dimensional barcodes, created in 1988, carry 100 times more information than one-dimensional barcodes.
  • Early barcode scanners were as big as washing machines.
  • The normal 13-digit barcoding system has the ability to create ten thousand billion different codes.
  • Barcodes 2 feet (0.6 meters) long are used by the United States Army to label boats.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Barcodes today are so ubiquitous, and by all accounts useful and reliable, it may seem as if there is really no way they can be significantly improved. However, as with every successful transformative idea and technology, the more barcodes are used, the more new need (opportunities) present themselves.

Here is a potpourri of near-term trends singled out by a number of industry observers.

  • 2D barcodes are already clearly becoming the norm and displacing 1D barcodes in response to several inherent benefits. While 1D barcodes can hold only 85 characters of information, 2D barcodes can encapsulate a much more impressive 7,000 characters of information.We are already seeing 2D barcodes in action in the shape of QR codes. 2D barcodes are set to replace 1D barcodes on all goods and products.
  • As technology advances, barcodes will become increasingly easier to scan. Currently, barcodes have to be held just right for proper scanning. This can hamper worker productivity, notably in retailing, since they have to first hold goods at the right angle before scanning.
  • Self-scanning tunnels and other scanning devices on production lines that will be able to read barcodes from products at any orientation or angle are already under development. Since there is no need to hold the item correctly for a successful scan, productivity will greatly increase. It will be possible to take barcode readings on a fast-moving conveyor belt
  • Another exciting development is the “image barcode.” Image scanning AI is consistently evolving and improving. Soon a time will come when a scanner will identify product information just by scanning the image of the item alone.
  • Digital barcodes are another cutting-edge development. Here, the barcode is imperceptibly impressed across the full surface of an item rather than as a line or 2D object such that its presence cannot be perceived by the naked eye. However, sophisticated scanners can pick up the barcode reliably and can thus scan what appear to be barcode-free items to customers. An intrinsic advantage of the digital barcode is that it can be applied to items that you could not previously barcode.
  • Customer service will skyrocket due to faster scanning and checkouts. Not only will customers be able to save time and avoid the hassle, but they will be able to use their smart devices to scan items for the quick retrieval of product information.
  • RFID (radio frequency identification) technology will transform the supply chain, empower customers, and expedite operations as well as delivery times. RFID technology will prove to be invaluable for a stellar customer experience. Customers will be able to pick up the RFID code by holding their phones next to their item of interest. This in turn will play video and show content for product details and information. This is a win-win situation for brands and consumers alike. Inventory tracking will become a cinch

If the consensus seems to be positive, a recent event may put a damper on the optimism. In December 2022 Amazon, the world’s largest retailer, announced that it plans to do away with barcodes.

CNET, an American media website that publishes reviews, news, articles, blogs, podcasts, and videos on technology and consumer electronics, reported, and analyzed the announcement as follows:

Robots may be the future, but robotic arms are apparently no good at using the good ol’ barcode. Barcodes can be hard to find and can be affixed to oddly shaped products, something robots can’t troubleshoot very well.

As a result, Amazon said Friday that it has a plan to kill the barcode.

Using pictures of items in Amazon warehouses to train a computer model, the e-commerce giant has developed a camera system that can monitor items flowing one-by-one down conveyor belts to make sure they match their images. Eventually, Amazon’s AI experts and roboticists want to combine the technology with robots that identify items while picking them up and turning them around.

“Solving this problem, so robots can pick up items and process them without needing to find and scan a barcode, is fundamental,” said Nontas Antonakos, an applied science manager in Amazon’s computer vision group in Berlin. “It will help us get packages to customers more quickly and accurately.”

The system, called multi-modal identification, isn’t going to fully replace barcodes soon. Products in Amazon warehouses will need to have barcodes as long as outside companies that make and ship them rely on the technology to identify and track stock. Amazon’s new system is currently in use in facilities in Barcelona, Spain, and Hamburg, Germany, the company said, adding that it’s already speeding up the time it takes to process packages there. The technology will be shared across Amazon’s businesses, so it’s possible you could one day see a version of it at a Whole Foods or another Amazon-owned chain with in-person stores. . .

Amazon’s AI experts had to start by building up a library of images of products, something the company hadn’t had a reason to create prior to this project. The images themselves as well as data about the products’ dimensions fed the earliest versions of the algorithm, and the cameras continually capture new images of items to train the model with.

The algorithm’s accuracy rate was between 75% and 80 percent when first used, which Amazon considered a promising start. The company says the accuracy is now at 99%. . .

Amazon’s AI team says it will be a challenge to fine-tune the multi-modal identification system to assess products that are being handled by people, which is why the ultimate goal is to have robots handle them instead.

As American humorist, Mark Twain remarked when a newspaper erroneously reported he had died, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”* While Amazon seems bent on replicating the barcode with a system more suited to today’s era of expanding AI, the question is: How many others will follow? The next five to 10 years should provide the answer.

Editor’s note

*For purists, this is not exactly what Mr. Twain said. What he actually said was less succinct. The popular version of the quote is both more literate and much more to the point.