Barcodes have become a universal feature of modern life – you’ll find them on almost everything you can buy. As smartphones have become increasingly common-place the barcode has evolved too – allowing us to scan posters and adverts to gain access to further information about whatever catches our eye. The barcode is one of those simple ideas that found a niche early on and has since gone on to first dominate and then revolutionise many aspects of how we live.
It wasn’t always thus, of course.
The initial inspiration for the modern barcodes has been traced to a desire in the late 1940s to automatically identify product information during the checkout process at supermarkets. Development of the system we know today was hampered by the technology then available – both in terms of scanning and processing the information itself.
The first known practical application of what we would recognise as a barcode would take place in the early 1960s before the Association of American Railroads adopted the systems as a means of identifying and tracking individual railroad cars. By 1974, 95% of the North American railroad fleet had been ‘tagged’. Before long a similar system would be in use within the US postal service, and at the same time the system was being developed to be useful within retail.
Various approaches were considered, from the ‘linear’ barcode we’re familiar with today to concentric circles and starburst patterns. Problems with ink smearing during the printing process in the other formats led to the linear design being selected for further development and testing.
As a result, in June 1974 a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum became the first item to be scanned at the checkout – the gum and receipt remain on display at the Smithsonian Institution.
From that point on the barcode gradually made itself a part of our lives. International delivery services use barcodes to process and track parcels from one side of the world to the other, supermarkets now allow us to scan our own shopping at the checkout. Everything from DVDs to tissues now comes with a striped pattern on them.
Looking back at its humble origins, it is truly remarkable just how much these black and white stripes have impacted the world we see today.