Technology

70 years of barcodes: the idea that was born from a drawing on the beach in Morse

Barcodes have become essential for the products we buy in supermarkets, pharmacies and other sales establishments. unmistakable sound of a barcode reader hovering over an object It is something we have become accustomed to, and it is not for less, it is something that has been with us for 70 years.

Its history dates back to 1932, that is, 90 years ago, when a group of Harvard School of Business Administration students considered a method that would facilitate catalog purchases. However, the invention would not take shape until October 20, 1949, thanks to Americans Norman Woodland, a former Manhattan Project engineer, and his friend Bernard Silver. Unless the creators registered the patent, it would take longer, especially on 7 October 1952.



pioneers of barcodes

If we go back to that first idea of ​​the Harvard student body, their intention was to create a product that would allow customers to take back. A card of the item they wanted to purchase from the catalog to give to employees. In this way, the latter can pass it through a mechanical reader to obtain more information about the product and its location in the warehouse so as to facilitate purchases quickly.

However, this project is not what we know it today. For change to happen and we can actually talk about bar codes, we must move forward two decades, when Bernard Silver and Norman WoodlandThe Drexel Institute of Technology collaborated to bring the invention to light.


Spaniards hold 65% of customer cards for food.

How was the initial idea?

Silver and Woodland each created a different pattern of barcodes, unique per item, even if there is more than one. these were the initial codes four white lines on a dark background, But over time more lines may be added to increase the number of classifications.

The first barcode consisted of four white lines on a black background.
The first barcode consisted of four white lines on a black background.
Norman J. Woodland, Silver Bernard

Over time, they have added many more products with barcodes, so the decision to add more lines was very important. As he calculated, with four rows you can make seven combinations and With ten they reached 1,023.

barcode printing

Originally, Woodland wanted to use a special ink that glowed under UV light, but this feature was making production difficult. too expensive And that it didn’t last with time.

Thinking about its printing in an efficient way, the inventor was eventually inspired by Morse code to create a language for creation. Rumor has it that he got the idea while on the beach. Using sand as a canvas, engineer created dots and dashes Morse code And thought about doing it with thick and thin lines for barcodes.

After thinking about this last aspect, the inventors nicknamed their creation ‘Apparatus and Method of Classification’ And he issued the patent on this day 70 years ago. It used binary code that could be easily read and translated into any language with a scanner.


The number of newly activated cards on mobile or wearable devices has increased by more than 30% in 2021.

From Early to Modern Barcodes

Woodland and Silver laid the foundation for the barcodes used today: Transportation of goods, inventory, sales of products and a host of other daily operations, Despite the fact that barcodes are used on a daily basis, the inventors received almost nothing of the profits from its creation. His patent was soon sold to the Philco company and later given to RCA.

The introduction of numbers under the bars took place later.
The introduction of numbers under the bars took place later.
IBM Portugal

At the time, it was difficult to do the business that is done with bar codes today, but technology available in later decades made it easier to build faster scanning machines.

The first modern scanning system was installed by RCA A Kroger grocery store in 1972. This included a laser beam that allowed bar codes to be read quickly and efficiently compared to the hand scanners in installations at the time.

Like the first barcodes, those used today use a series of lines of different thicknesses that go with binary numbers, However, the current scanning system is more practical.

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