Summary: Barcodes are everywhere, but where did they come from and how did they start? Bar Codes are not just for grocery stores anymore.

I saw a funny ad on television the other day. It was for a bank or something – I don’t really remember – but people were waiting in what seemed to be endless lines. When they reached the front the teller took a staple gun and proceeded to attach a bar code to the forehead of the customer with it, all in the name of automation and faster service. A moment later we see another woman behind the counter trying to “scan” a customer’s forehead across a desk scanner that just won’t seem to read it. It was really funny, but then I started thinking about barcodes in general and how pervasive they’ve become.

Seems that just about everything you purchase nowadays has that little strip of bars on the back that gets run across a scanner at your point of purchase. It seems to tell a lot about the product: brand, item, size, and price – even which shipment it came in with and when. It also seems that these codes are so pervasive that if for some reason the product doesn’t scan, it’s like playing a game of “stump the cashier.” So when did this happen? When did these bar codes take over and why? Where do they get them and can I have one, too?

Believe it or not, the idea for an automatic system to track retail info stretches back to 1932 and a forward thinking man by the name of Wallace Flint, literally wrote the book on it. A business major, Flint’s master’s thesis outlined the use of punch cards which could be used by grocery shoppers to access items and store owners to track inventory. A great idea on paper, but back in the day punch card-reading equipment was both cumbersome and pricey.

Still, no one was able to even touch his idea for another 16 years when Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland created the first device able to read printed material: the scanner. First came a readable code – one they based on Morse code – with dots as thin lines and dashes as thick ones. After Woodland landed a job at IBM, he and Silver built the first bar code scanner: the size of a large desk, it used an energy sucking, heat producing 500-watt bulb and had to be wrapped in black oilcloth as it only read ink that glowed under ultraviolet light. But what mattered was that it worked. The two obtained their patent in 1952 and IBM made them an offer – which they refused as they thought it was worth more. The two held out for ten more years until a company by the name of Philco made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Philco turned around and sold it to RCA almost immediately – for what was rumored to be a tidy profit.

As stated, barcodes – or universal product codes (UPC) – were developed primarily for use in grocery stores, but once they proved their muster it didn’t take long until other retailers wanted in on the action. Their use quickly spread to other areas of the retail industry. The bonuses of UPCs and scanners in retail are many: automatic price look-up, excellent inventory tracking, elimination of human error on the end of cashiers and price markers, itemized receipts for customers, and super-speedy check outs for all, keeping the dreaded lines at the register to a minimum – something that’s become increasingly more important with so many of us overbooked and overworked.

Still, UPCs are not without their problems, primarily stemming from initial human error. If, for instance, someone forgets to scan the carton of brand new, just-hit-the-market Topsy Tissues and they make it to the floor, a minor bottleneck could occur at the register. After all, the 15 year olds scanning items at the registers aren’t being paid minimum wage to actually find the price of a product and enter it, just run a little light across it until it beeps Since actual product pricing has become somewhat obsolete, if a price is missing it can be difficult to track down quickly – leaving said cashiers to make up prices as they go. Now, not only is the inventory off, but so is your budget.

But retailers aren’t the only ones who use bar codes, at least in theory, to simplify things. University and research libraries were some of the first non-retailers to use bar-coding to keep track of the huge number of books they house and most public libraries have been using barcodes for more than a decade. The US Postal Service uses barcodes and scanners to improve speed and accuracy for mail delivery and Museums keep track of which works of art are on display, where they’re housed when they’re not, what’s being restored or repaired, and who had which piece last. Scanning keeps track of all this on a computer – so if someone snuffed their afternoon smoke on the gallery’s Jackson Polluck (and someone noticed), a glance at the computer will tell all.

So let’s face it, barcodes are everywhere. A friend of mine told me of someone she met at a pool party who had a tattoo on his left shoulder. She told me that, sure enough, he had a barcode tattooed on his shoulder with some numbers underneath. “What are the numbers?” she asked.

“It’s my social security number.” He replied. “I’m scannable.”

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