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The Story of the Barcode

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
September 4, 2023 3:04 am

The Story of the Barcode

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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September 4, 2023 3:04 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, a barcode on most products, properly called a UPC, or “Universal Product Code,” is a necessity for everyday life. Here’s the History Guy with the story. 

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His videos are watched by hundreds of thousands of people of all ages over on YouTube. The History Guy is also heard here at Our American Stories. Barcodes on most products properly called a UPC or Universal Product Code are a necessity for everyday life.

Here's the History Guy with the story. They become so common that they're on virtually every consumer product that you might buy, from a box of cookies to an action figure to every automobile that has been built since 1981. They're on mail, they're on scannable tickets. In COVID concerns, they were used to access restaurant menus. Barcodes have become so ubiquitous that we take them for granted, but barcodes are an absolute necessity in the modern world. They're what allow the vast and complex trade networks and supply chains of the modern world to function.

According to GS1, which is a nonprofit that maintains barcode standards, there were some 5 billion barcodes scanned every day in 2012. It is history that deserves to be remembered. Humans have engaged in trade for millennia, far back into prehistory. For most of human existence this was done by bartering, impromptu trading sessions that involve personal negotiations of goods and services without any money involved. As societies grew more complex, bartering became less convenient, especially when humans introduced civilization and the concept of government. Civilizations grew, economies developed and trade grew increasingly complex.

In the ancient Middle East, civilizations like the Acadians and the Sumerians developed writing largely to keep records, and one of the most important uses of records was in trade. At its most basic, the concept of a barcode was to automate and streamline that system so that businesses and manufacturers and transit systems could keep track of the millions of items that are moved and sold at countless retailers, trading centers and factories every day. The 21st century and the development of consumer culture further complicated selling items using price booklets or memory. Huge varieties of branded products would massively increase the number and kind of products so that whole aisles could be filled with the same product being sold at different prices by different companies.

It became impossible for a salesperson to memorize even a fraction of a store's prices. In 1948, a Philadelphia Drexel Institute of Technology graduate named Bernard Bob Silver is said to have overheard a conversation between a supermarket manager and the Dean of Engineering at Drexel. The manager was hoping that the Dean could consider working on some way of automating the checkout process so that shoppers could move through the store more quickly.

After all, in 1948 the cashier had to manually check each item, determine a price and add that together for a total. According to the story, the Dean was uninterested but Silver was intrigued and confident that there was a solution. Silver mentioned the conversation to fellow Drexel student Norman Joseph Woodland, who began working on some concepts. He was quickly convinced that a workable solution could be found. One of the first concepts was to use patterns of ink that would glow under ultraviolet light and the pair built a device to test the idea.

While at work they found that the ink faded and was too expensive. Woodland decided to dedicate himself to the problem. He left his teaching job at the university and cashed in some stocks to tide him over while he worked and went to live in an apartment owned by his grandfather in Miami Beach. While working in Miami Beach he had his epiphany.

According to Woodland he was sitting on the beach thinking when the solution presented itself. He had learned Morse code as a boy scout and considered the long and short sounds by drawing them physically on the sand. He described the moment, I remember I was thinking about dots and dashes when I poked my four fingers into the sand and for whatever reason I didn't know, I pulled my hand towards me and I had four lines and I said, golly now I have four lines and they could be wide lines and narrow lines instead of dots and dashes. Now I have a better chance of finding the doggone thing.

Then only seconds later I took my four fingers, they were still in the sand and I swept them around in a circle. The first barcode was drawn out in the sand on Miami Beach. Woodland returned to Drexel with his new idea which still faced the problem of how to read the data once it was encoded in the binary barcode. He turned to another technology to find the solution. In 1919 inventor Lee DeForest was awarded several patents that he used to develop the optical sound on film technology, the technology necessary to create the first talky films. DeForest system printed a pattern along a film strip that varied the amount of transparency and then shone a light through the film as the picture ran.

A sensitive tube could then translate the shifts in brightness and convert the information to sound. All Woodland needed was a light and a similar sensitive tube to detect the information. During their work they chose to change the design from linear bars to concentric circles of varying thickness, creating the bullseye barcode.

The idea of the bullseye code was that it could be read from any direction. In 1951 the pair set out to build the first barcode reader in Woodland's living room. The initial device was the size of a desk, had to be completely wrapped in oil cloth to keep out any ambient light. It used a bright light and an RCA 935 photomultiplier tube, originally designed for the sound on film systems, to read the data. The light was so bright that as they tested the device some of the paper printed with barcodes actually began smoldering, but they proved using an oscilloscope that the system could read information from the barcodes. Of course there remained several practical issues with the invention, installing them across the country was impossible given the expense of the 500 watt bulb which created an enormous amount of waste heat.

That bulb was an awful thing to look at, Woodland later said, it could cause eye damage. What they needed was a way to focus a large amount of light with little heat and in a more compact space, but in 1951 lasers didn't exist. They were awarded the patent for the designs and apparatus on October 7th 1952. The year before Woodland had been hired by IBM and both he and Silver hoped to convince the company to pursue the technology.

By continually pestering IBM to take a look at the concept, IBM finally commissioned a report on the concept in the late 1950s, which concluded that the concept was interesting but as of then impossible to implement without further technological advancement. IBM did allegedly offer to buy the patent but not at a price that the inventors thought was sufficient. The patent only granted Woodland and Silver 17 years of protection and time was rapidly running out for them to effectively make money on their invention. And so in 1962 when Philco, a pioneer in battery radio and television production, offered to buy the patent for $15,000, they accepted. This would be the only money the pair made off their invention.

And the following year Bob Silver died of bronchopneumonia brought on by leukemia at age 38. Philco would later sell the patent to RCA somewhere in the 1960s. In 1966 the National Association of Food Chains had a meeting on automated checkout systems. RCA, which owned Woodland and Silver's original patent, was at the meeting and began working on a project to deliver a checkout scanner. In the mid 70s the NAFC established the Ad Hoc Committee for US supermarkets on uniform grocery product code to manage competing technologies and standardize an approach. The Ad Hoc Committee developed an 11 number code and asked companies to design a system to read it. RCA attracted attention for their bullseye code in 1971 and IBM decided to develop a competing technology. Someone remembered that Joe Woodland still worked at the company and began a new facility in North Carolina with Woodland to make it happen. George Lauer, a longtime IBM employee, came to the conclusion that the bullseye pattern wouldn't work.

When you run a circle through a high-speed press there are parts that are always going to get smeared, he recalled. RCA was learning this at the same time at a test store in Cincinnati. So Lauer came up with his own code using vertical lines, ironically similar to Woodland's original concept. It took some time to develop a system that was small enough to fit on most products while still being readable, eventually based on a barcode called Delta C developed by Bill Kraus.

The Delta C system was robust and able to read even damaged dirtier bent codes. The UPC code was born and in 1973 it was established as the standard for the National Association of Food Chains. IBM developed the IBM 3660, a scanner with a digital point-of-sale terminal.

UPC's the grocery industry from supplies to supermarkets adopted the technology wholesale. On June 26 1974 Clyde Dawson, head of R&D with Marsh supermarket, handed over a multi-pack of Wrigley's gum which became the first UPC code to be scanned, came out to $0.69. Dawson later said he chose gum specifically because of its small size to prove the usefulness of the barcode.

In 1992 Woodland was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the highest honor the US can confer to a US citizen for technological achievement. It took a while for barcodes to fully catch on but of course they did, largely facilitated with large chains like Kmart and Walmart started using them. Perhaps one of the most important of the early adopters of barcodes was the United States military which is their own code called the code 39. Now barcodes are on all sorts of products, they're used for stock checking and inventory maintenance and of course for checkout scanning. Since the 1970s the types of barcodes have proliferated to things that don't even really look like barcodes, so-called 2D barcodes like the QR code and data matrix and maxi code adored all sorts of products. A barcode with a vehicle identification number has been required on all newly manufactured automobiles in the United States since 1981 and barcodes have been required on pharmaceuticals since 2004. You know, in a way, the way a society tracks data is a hallmark of civilization, begun millennia ago when the Mesopotamians first started to develop writing. Computers and lasers and specialties aren't barcodes, they're really just part of a long string of technologies that have been built to facilitate commerce and make civilization just a little bit easier. And a terrific job on the editing by Greg Hengler and the production and a special thanks to The History Guy.

If you want more stories of forgotten history, please subscribe to his YouTube channel, The History Guy colon history deserves to be remembered. The story of the barcode here on Our American Stories. You wouldn't settle for watching a blurry TV, would you? So why settle for just okay TV sound? Upgrade your streaming and sound all in one with Roku Stream Bar. This powerful two-in-one upgrade for any TV lets you stream your favorite entertainment in brilliant 4K HDR picture and hear every detail with auto speech clarity. Whether you're hosting a party or just cleaning the house, turn it up and rock out with iHeart Radio and room-filling sound. Learn more about Roku Stream Bar today at roku.com.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-09-04 04:55:46 / 2023-09-04 05:01:38 / 6

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