The evolution of barcodes – why barcodes are here to stay

7 min

To the human eye, barcodes may be just black and white lines of varying thickness, or rectangular, pixel-like patterns. They’ve changed a lot in dimensions, type, range, and even reading technology over the years, but their primary utility, which is identifying and tracking items, continues to defy the passage of time to date. The technology is deeply ingrained in modern systems for monitoring and identifying inventories and products, efficiently and accurately.

Here’s is the indelible story of the barcodes, from inception to what they are today:

1948: Silver Overhears a Conversation Posing an Interesting Engineering Challenge

The challenge wasn’t originally his, but Bernard Silver took an interest in research on technology that could automatically capture product information during checkout. He had earlier overheard the head of a dominant food chain and a dean talking about the problem. He later shared the challenge with Norman Joseph Woodland, his classmate at Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia, PA.

Mr. Woodland drew his first barcodes on the sand with his fingers. He created a series of lines of varying width, which he read using optical soundtracks technology. Morse code inspired his ideas.

In an interview with Smithsonian magazine in 1999, Mr. Woodland said,

“I poked my four fingers into the sand and for whatever reason — I didn’t know — I pulled my hand toward me and drew four lines. I said: ‘Golly! Now I have four lines, and they could be wide lines and narrow lines instead of dots and dashes.”

On 7 October 1952, Woodland and Silver were granted a US patent for product/asset identification technology based on linear as well as bull’s eye printing patterns. The patent also covered mechanical and electronic systems for reading the coded information.

While brilliant and promising, these ideas weren’t ready for enterprise applications at the time, and even IBM passed up an opportunity to buy the patented concept from Woodland and Silver. The duo later sold the patent to Philco. RCA bought it eventually.

1966: The Search for a Universal Product Code (UPC)

The development of a workable UPC was necessary before mass commercialization of barcodes could become viable. So, in 1966, the National Association of Food Chains (NAFC) invited and started receiving submissions for a UPC standard that would apply uniformly across the U.S. retail industry. The barcode would encode product details including name, manufacturer, and price.

1967: The Association of American Railroads (AAR) Adopts Barcodes in Car Tracking

The U.S. rail industry had been searching for a reliable, cost-effective, and an all-weather system for identifying and tracking railcars for years. The massive industry needed a way to monitor these mobile assets, some of which would “get lost,” in transit. David J. Collins, who was already aware of the challenge, spearheaded the development of the perfect solution while working for Sylvania, a General Telephone and Electronics (GTE) subsidiary.

Collins and his team developed KarTrak, a barcode system that had reflective color bars for coded asset information. Scanners would decode the labels by light transmission. The Boston and Maine Railroad put the technology to the test for the first time in 1961. Testing continued for several more years.

In 1967, AAR began using the GTE-developed freight-tracking technology to identify railroad cars. Each barcode comprised a six-digit code representing the freight firm, and a four-digit number identifying the railcar. Each such vehicle had a tag attached to the side.

Generally, most railroad companies throughout the U.S. appreciated the level of control the Automatic Car Identification (ACI) system afforded them, but they had some reservations too. They needed a freight tracking solution with railcar tags decodable in any weather, but some snow or mud-covered KarTrak codes would fail to decode. Also, the system wasn’t integrated with any computer network. Those were some of the issues that contributed to AAR abandoning the ACI standard in 1977.

1969: First True Barcode-Reading Technology

After quitting Sylvania, Collins founded his company Computer Identics Corporation (CIC), under whose umbrella he began developing an advanced barcode scanning solution based on laser technology. In 1969, General Motors deployed one of Collin’s first real barcode reading systems. General Trading Company also had the technology installed at one of its facilities.

GM used the technology to track different types of transmissions along a conveyor system at a factory in Flint, Michigan. Likewise, the scanners helped General Trading Company control the movement of consignments to appropriate loading bays.

1970: Universal Grocery Products Identification Code (UGPIC)

The NAFC continued its search for a universal coding standard to inform the development of a scanning system for use by the food/groceries industry in the U.S. The organization set up the U.S. Supermarket Ad Hoc Committee on a Uniform Grocery Product Code to develop the prerequisite framework.

In 1972, RCA deployed one of the first scanning technologies at a Cincinnati-based Kroger store in an 18-month test run. The barcodes encoded product information in the form of circular lines and spaces of varying thickness. While the circular shape was desirable as it enabled scanners to read data from multiple angles, some codes had printer ink distortions that made them unreadable from numerous orientations. Likewise, Kroger staff had to attach the “bull’s eye” codes on products, manually. So, RCA’s wasn’t an ideal solution for the retail industry.

1973: The UPC Adoption

Industry leaders in the U.S. settled on a uniform standard for identifying products in 1973. IBM had developed the UPC system, which used optics and lasers. NAFC rejected seven other proposals. Although Joseph Woodland worked for IBM this time, it’s his colleague, George Laurer, who led the company in developing the winning barcode technology.

1974: The UPC Commercial Debut at a Marsh Supermarket in Ohio

On June 26, 1974, in the morning, a UPC-tagged pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum was scanned in a Marsh supermarket in Ohio. It was the first time in history the much-fined refined barcode technology was used to identify an item at retail checkout.

With the UPC standard, manufacturers would print product information on packages. Retailers would then use scanners in-store to capture and transfer the data into a computer system. Stores could also generate their own codes in-house to encode additional product information. The automatic scanning system streamlined checkout processes and facilitated inventory tracking across the entire U.S. retail industry.

The 1980s: Barcode Adoption Spreads

As more players in retail sectors like grocery, electronics, and textile adopted barcode scanning systems, the utility of the technology expanded. Scanners began capturing much more than just product model, size, or pricing information. The system gave retailers the ability to harness scanned data to build customer profiles and develop loyalty reward plans quickly.

Since UPC, numerous variations of the standard have come up for a broad spectrum of industrial/commercial applications, including:

EAN Codes: Pretty much every consumer product has these UPCs.

Interleaved 2 of 5: It’s used to identify and track assets in the warehousing and shipping industries.

1987: The First 2D Barcode

Traditional barcodes are one dimensional, meaning that they encode information in one direction. They have a limited storage capacity (up to 20 characters), and they can only code alphanumeric characters. Their inherent limitations informed the search for improvements.

Eventually, David Allais created the first two-dimensional barcode in 1987. Many other 2D barcodes have come up since, although very few of these have attracted large-scale adoption.

1994: Enter QR Codes

A team of developers led by Masahiro Hara at Denso Wave in Japan introduced Quick Response or QR codes in 1994. These were technological enhancements on traditional barcodes, which helped the company track automobile parts faster. The technology could also encode more details that a single scan could decipher in a matter of milliseconds.

QR codes are 2D, so they represent information in two directions: vertically and horizontally. That’s how they’re able to hold much more details than possible with 1D codes.

The Denso Wave team also came up with a position detecting pattern consisting of square marks to optimize the speed of reading codes. Each QR code has these marks. Today, a QR code can encode thousands of characters.

When Denso Wave invented QR codes, it just wanted to automate inventory management in a way that traditional barcodes couldn’t. The intended application was purely industrial, but the technology’s capabilities and versatility inspired its gradual adoption in other industries, including consumer advertising.

Additionally, while the company patented the invention, it waived the rights and released the technology’s specifications to the public. The waiver allowed individuals or companies to leverage standardized QR codes as they wished, free of charge.

2000: QR Code is ISO Certified

QR codes’ ISO certification in 2000 meant it had attained international acceptance as automatic identification and data capture technology. The development enabled creators of QR codes and scanning systems from all over the world to come up with compatible solutions based on a common global standard.

2004: Micro QR Code Standardization in Japan

Denso Wave continued to refine QR code technology to address diverse as well as specific asset tagging and tracking requirements. So, the company developed micro QR codes, which were small enough for use with limited symbol sizes. These became a Japanese Industrial Standard (JIS) in 2004.

2010: QR Codes for Consumer Advertising Penetrate the U.S.

By around 2010, QR reader apps for various mobile operating systems, such as Android, were available in the U.S. From then on, QR codes could appear on different forms of consumer advertising and promotions, from flyers and posters to magazines and newspapers. So, interested smartphone users could just scan a code using their smartphone to access digital resources or content, quickly. Scanning a QR code with a smartphone could accomplish several things, such as open a web portal or site, or append business card information to the phone’s contact list.

The advent of the smartphone was something of a game changer for QR codes as it enabled the masses and marketers to access the technology without having to buy dedicated scanners. According to some estimates, some 14 million people in the U.S. scanned a QR code with their smartphones’ cameras in 2011. Major U.S. companies embraced the technology for marketing purposes from this year going forward.

2012: QR Code Adoption for Applications Within the GS1 System

In January 2012, GS1 adopted a type of QR code for encoding and sharing comprehensive packaging information on assets. The standardization was a boost for shipping and warehousing operations worldwide as it provided a more advanced, universal tool for identifying, decoding, and sharing supply chain information.

Today: QR Codes Combine With GPS to Track Asset Location

Perhaps, QR codes as we know them today have much more capabilities than imagined in 1994 when they entered the asset tracking scene. Inherently, the technique cannot tell you the exact location of an asset that’s not always in a fixed spot. A QR code can identify an item wherever it may be, but if the object moves to a different site, it has no way to see that. Integrating mobile GPS with the technique addresses the problem.

So, companies with large mobile or potentially mobile inventories to manage are turning to QR codes and GPS-capable technologies. The system has three main components: a QR tag that the user attaches to the asset, a GPS-enabled smartphone with an installed QR code reader, and software linked to a cloud-hosted database.

With mobile GPS on, scanning the QR label reveals the geospatial information of the tagged asset at the time of the scan. On the other hand, software records and delivers the scanned asset information to the user in near real time.

QR code/GPS tracking systems have multi-industry applications today. For example, companies that rent out equipment like computers use the technology to track the assets and minimize the risk of loss. Construction, shipping, and trucking firms leverage the solutions for the same purpose.

In Conclusion: The World’s Not Yet Done With Barcodes!

Barcodes and business go way back, and their unsurprisingly fruitful relationship isn’t showing any signs of falling apart in the foreseeable future. They continue to grace billions of products on store shelves, with a similar number of scans materializing at point-of-sale terminals every day. Barcodes are helping track pretty much any tangible object, from tools, to books in libraries and patients in hospitals to assets in warehouses and consignments in transit. While they’ve morphed through diverse shapes, sizes, and capacities since their first commercial application, they’re here to stay!

However, which one is the best asset tagging/tracking technique between traditional barcodes and QR codes? If you’d like to learn more about these technologies, talk to us at GoCodes!

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