Celebrating the bar code

They’re so ubiquitous, we keep forgetting they’re truly everywhere, but we see the bar code on practically everything we buy.

Think about how much slower everything would take to purchase if we couldn’t scan a bar code on a product at check-out, whether we’re buying groceries, books, DVDs / Blu-rays, you name it. Having to scan a barcode has also been a godsend in protecting businesses against theft. 

In fact, the Associated Press notes that  an estimated five billion products are scanned and recorded every day with the bar code, which was invented by Norman Joseph Woodland, who just passed away at the age of 91. 

The idea first came together when Joseph and a fellow student named Bernard Silver were studying at Drexel University. An executive at a grocery store was asking the dean of engineering if his students could come up with some way you could gather information at the check out counter, which is another way the bar code became revolutionary in that it could gather up information with a simple scan.

Woodland had a mechanical-engineering degree and also worked on the Manhattan Project, but he stopped going to graduate school to develop the bar code. The first basis for the bar code was Morse Code, then the revelation came to Woodland that “Instead of dots and dashes I can have thick and thin bars.” The patent for the bar code was submitted in 1949, it finally went through in 1952, but it took time for the bar code to turn into something we couldn’t go without. 

Still, the technology didn’t go mainstream for more than two decades until lasers made it possible to easily read the code. Woodland was working for IBM for years, and in the 70’s his team came up with the laser scanning system we have today. We know it as the UPC scan, the Universal Product Code, and the very first product that got scanned was a package of Wrigley’s gum that cost 67 cents in Troy, Ohio, in June 1974. 

Again, this kind of technology, like the remote control, is so ingrained in our lives, it’s easy to take it for granted. But when I read this report and realized how many billions of products are paid for and cataloged every day all over the world thanks to the bar code, it really is a trip to realize how much we rely on this great invention that had its humble beginnings way back in the forties, and finally got its launch in 1974.