A Few Words about Barcodes


The history of barcodes stretches back to 1948 when Bernard Silver, a graduate student at Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia, overheard the boss of a local food chain asking one of the deans to research a system to automatically read product information during checkout. Interested by the issue, Silver told his friend Norman Joseph Woodland about it. They started working on a variety of systems, and in October 1949 filed a patent application for ‘Classifying Apparatus and Method’.

Various systems were tried on American railroads during the 1950s and 1960s but were dogged by operational issues. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that RCA, which had purchased the rights to the original Woodland patent, took up the idea of automated checkout systems for retail use. A wide variety of barcode approaches were studied, and in 1972 RCA began an 18-month test, which eventually produced a commercially viable workable system. On 26 June 1974, at Marsh’s Supermarket in Troy, Ohio, Clyde Dawson pulled a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum out of his basket and it was scanned by Sharon Buchanan at 8:01 am. The pack of gum and the receipt are now on display in the Smithsonian Institution.

The global public launch of the barcode was greeted with scepticism by some who viewed barcodes as an intrusive surveillance technology – as well as by some Christians who thought the codes hid the number 666.

Common uses

Barcodes are now a ubiquitous aspect of modern life, allowing their users to organise large amounts of data, conduct transactions speedily and with a minimum of error, and identify people and items accurately. Among other things, they are used:

  • For retail items in shops (except fresh produce).
  • For retail chain membership cards.
  • In doctors’ surgeries and hospitals, to identify patients (in order to access patient data, including medical history, drug allergies, etc).
  • To monitor the location of, for example, rental cars, airline luggage, and registered and express mail.
  • For tickets allowing access to sports arenas, cinemas, theaters, fairgrounds.
  • For transport tickets.

Something from a Gary Larson cartoon??

In a development reminiscent of a Gary Larson cartoon, a system called StripeSpotter is now in use. StripeSpotter is a joint project between the Computational Population Biology laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the Equid Research and Conservation laboratory at Princeton. It is an automatic individual animal identification system used for animals which have prominent stripes or patches. The aim of the system’s creators is to use it to build biometric databases using photographs taken in the field – starting, rather inevitably, with zebras. For more information see http://compbio.cs.uic.edu/.

Barcodes in document storage

In the document storage sector, barcodes are used to identify individual archive boxes, store key information relating to them (such as destruction dates and requests for retrieval) and record their location in store. Ardington Archives uses the software solutions provided by ONeil (www.oneilsoft.com), the market leader in record storage and management software solutions. In addition to using the labels provided by ONeil to barcode every box that comes into our storage facilities, we use ONeil’s very versatile and robust handheld scanners to scan the barcodes in situ and automatically transmit the identity, characteristics and location of each box to our computer systems. The use of this system offers a foolproof method of locating and identifying our clients’ records and ensures that we can respond swiftly and accurately to clients’ requests.