Milestones:Birthplace of the Bar Code
Birthplace of the Barcode, 1948
In an attempt to automate the reading of product information in a local grocery store, Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland at the Drexel Institute of Technology developed a solution that became the ubiquitous Barcode Identification System. Patented in 1952, the Barcode has become a key technology for product identification and inventory control in industry and daily life.
(The plaque may be viewed at Drexel University, Bossone Research Enterprise Center, 31st Street and Market Street, Philapdelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.)
At the period of its conception, there were no simple mechanisms that could code data in a way that would make it machine readable, and no technology that could scan images on-the-fly and extract useful information from them. Moreover computing infrastructure that can support the data storage and processing requirements associated with mass scale inventory tracking and control was non-existent. The barcode technology served to invent some of these components including optical readers, and in the process of adapting other components towards its own cause, helped improve these supporting technologies. Consequently, simultaneous efforts in the many areas of electrical and computer engineering such as machine vision, signal processing, data representation, coding, error correction, data storage, data security and database design and management were required to implement the barcode technology. This eventually contributed immensely towards the development in those areas.
Barcodes revolutionized the way logistics of goods and inventories were organized and managed, and provided a robust and economically feasible solution for inventory management and tracking across regional, national and international borders. It has become an ubiquitous technology to find applications in every imaginable sector ranging from aerospace, to healthcare to retail to service industries. Due to its applicability in any application that requires a multitude of objects to be tracked and managed, the barcode technology has been universally adopted across the entire globe.
Prior to the invention of barcodes, automated registration of components and goods was largely unavailable. Designs proposed earlier for such purposes including punch cards were too expensive and cumbersome. Tedious manual processes based on tags that were human read and recorded were the most common alternative before the barcode came into common use. The extremely low costs associated with the printing of barcodes (in the order of 0.5 cents) and its conformability were also features that set the barcode so apart from competing technologies that led to its success and universal adoption.
References and Further Reading
1. Norman J. Woodland and Bernard Silver, "Classifying Apparatus and Method," U.S. Patent 2,612,994 application 20 October 1949, issued 7 October 1952.
2. Margalit Fox, Norman J. Woodland obituary: "If It's for Sale, His Lines Sort It," New York Times, 12 December 2012.
3. Alan G. Robinson and Sam Stern, Chapter 7: "Self-Initiated Activity," in Corporate Creativity: How Innovation and Improvement Actually Happen (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1997).
4. Stephen A. Brown, Revolution at the Checkout Counter: The Explosion of the Bar Code (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).