These days, it’s hard to imagine a world without barcodes. Stores depend on them for just about everything from taking inventory to setting prices. Before barcodes came along, these things had to be done manually and the amount of time and effort could end up costing a shopowner a lot of money. Add in the fact that shoplifting was almost impossible to stop and you can see why the world is better with barcodes.
The barcode came along when college student Bernard Silver heard a conversation about coming up with an easier way for checking out items at a grocery store. With that, Silver left school to work on becoming the first to get a system in place. Using his experience and the technology of the time, Silver invented the barcode and had it patented before anybody else alongside his friend Norman Joseph Woodland.
This took place during the late 1940s and into the 1950s. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that barcodes for store usage started to take off. On June 26, 1974, a supermarket in Troy, Ohio became the first point of sale for an item using a barcode, selling a pack of Wrigley’s gum. Since then, almost everything purchased at a store has had a barcode and it’s become the standard in shopping.
But how is a barcode generated? Initially, Silver said that the idea came from extending the dots and dashes of Morse code downward into vertical lines. The reason why barcodes weren’t implemented almost immediately after their invention in the 1950s was that people simply didn’t have the software capable of making it widespread.
Each line represents a number between 0 and 9. Some barcodes are different in length, and obviously getting longer with more products and the need for more unique universal product codes, or UPCs for short. The system is operated by GS1, a not-for-profit organization that has standards for barcodes with over 2 million companies as part of the transactional organization. Companies that aren’t registered won’t receive a unique UPC, but can still generate their own barcodes through modern software.
Because of the standardization that has been set, making a barcode is easier than ever. Each retailer that’s registered with the GS1 can enter information on the product, which generates its unique barcode to help with inventory. For instance, very similar barcodes will be made for the same type of ice cream, but the UPC will help to determine which flavor is selling better. This has resulted in better inventory management and billions of dollars saved by retailers worldwide.
Each country that’s a member of the GS1 is given a unique barcode, similar to a country calling code for phones. For example, GS1 codes 100-139 are reserved for the United States, while Canada is 754-755 and the United Kingdom is 500-509. Each barcode has 95 blocks of code in total, with certain digits meaning certain things. This helps to identify food items, pharmaceuticals, etc.
We’ve come a long way since the days of having to write everything down or using punch cards to take inventory or using price tags and calculators to determine transactions. We’re seeing individuals running businesses out of their own homes and using legitimate barcodes through smartphones to keep their businesses running.
Another advent of the barcode is the QR code, which has become increasingly popular for opening webpages on phones to see what’s in stock, look at menus, or even just a simple image or video. A QR code is still considered a barcode but is a two-dimensional version consisting of squares on a grid instead of lines. The first QR codes came around in the late 1990s, and have become a staple with the rise in touchless, cashless transactions worldwide.