History of the barcode

Barcodes are part of our corporate identity, a key element in identification, logistics and traceability, and undoubtedly linked to the essence of one of Barcelona Packaging Hub’s partner, United Barcode Systems. This is its history:

There is some controversy surrounding the birth of the barcode. There are theories that relate its creation to a system for identifying railroad cars, others that place its origin in Harvard in the mid-1920s and others that speak of two Pennsylvania students in the 1950s. Similarly, there is no unanimity as to the first product identified by this tool that has become indispensable today.

The fathers of barcode

However, there is a majority of opinions that agree that this identification system originated in 1948, in Pennsylvania, USA, when the owner of a grocery store called Food Fair went to Drexel University in search of a solution to better track inventory. Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland, both graduates of the technological institute, took on this project and began research to find the most effective method. The solution they came up with was to use fluorescent ink to mark the products and then read the code with ultraviolet light. Unfortunately, the method was not entirely useful and did not succeed.

Norman Joseph Woodland (left) y Bernard Silver (right)


It was then that Woodland, motivated by the challenge that Food Fair had set them, decided to abandon his studies and move to Miami to devote himself entirely to the development of a method to encode the information on the products in the warehouse. He found a way using Morse code as a basis. There is a fable that tells how inspiration came to him on the beach, when, writing dots and stripes in the sand, Norman realized that he could stretch them to form vertical lines of different widths and imagined that the information would be encoded based on the presence or absence of vertical lines. Later he decided to give it a new design, forming with those same lines a circle of concentric bars. The reason for this evolution would be to be able to read the codes without depending on the product being correctly positioned.



From this development came the idea submitted to the patent registry on October 20, 1949 and accepted (with the code 2.612.994) on October 7, 1952 by Silver and Woodland: a circular bar code with concentric lines of different thicknesses. An idea that was never put into practice, as reading the information was complex and made the process too expensive. The patent was eventually sold to the American company RCA, Woodland started working at IBM and Silver died before he could see his idea implemented.


Railroad identification code

At the same time, in the 1950s, an MIT student named David Collins, working for the Pennsylvania Railroad, saw a latent need for automatic car labeling and identification. He finished his studies and went to work for GTE Sylvania to develop the KarTrak; a system of colored refractive stripes on the side of the cars that encodes a ten-digit identifying number. This is often considered to be the first bar code successfully employed for commercial purposes, however, it was a simpler, very specific and relatively successful method. The system was tested in Boston and Maine between 1961 and 1967, but when it became the standard for the entire USA, the economic crisis generated a wave of bankruptcies in the early seventies. This, added to the problems caused by the dirtiness of the wagons in the identification process, led to the format being discarded at the end of that same decade.



The standardization of barcodes

In 1966, the National Association of Food Chains (NAFC) set out to develop a universal labeling and scanning system that would streamline their store lines. They drew up a list of specifications for what would be their ideal device and contacted fourteen companies for a solution. RCA, one of the fourteen, presented its first-round codes under the name of Bull’s Eye, an evolution of the patent that belong in the past to two Pennsylvania students. However, IBM, another contestant who attended the presentation, decided to develop its own system, taking advantage of the fact that Woodman was still working for them, and would still be part of the team that in the 1970s developed the scanner technology that would allow the optical reading of the codes. So, they took up the original rectangular idea of vertical stripes, adding five variants marked with different letters depending on the type of industry.