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The Untold History Of Where Barcodes Come From

The Untold History of Where Barcodes Come From

When George Laurer goes to the grocery store, he doesn’t tell the check-out people that he invented the barcode, but his wife used to point it out. “My husband here’s the one who invented that barcode,” she’d occasionally say. And the checkout people would look at him like, “You mean there was a time when we didn’t have barcodes?”

A time without barcodes is hard to imagine now. But it wasn’t that long ago, and the story doesn’t start with George Laurer. It starts with an engineer named Joseph Woodland. In 1948 Woodland was trying to come up with simple symbol that, when scanned, would translate to a number that a computer could use to identify a product.

Legend has it that he came up with his design while sitting on the beach in Miami. He was puzzling over the whole thing, thinking about Morse Code and tracing circles in the sand. When finally, bulls-eye!

The Untold History of Where Barcodes Come From

(Courtesy of Bill Selmeier, idhistory.com)

The Untold History of Where Barcodes Come From

(Courtesy of Bill Selmeier, idhistory.com)

The very first barcodes were in the shape of a bulls-eye, though they weren’t called “barcodes” yet. Woodland’s invention was patented in 1952 as a “Classifying Apparatus and Method.” But Woodland’s “apparatus” would gather dust for 20 years — the scanners and other equipment needed to put the system in place were too expensive.

Finally, in 1973, a group of supermarket executives led by Alan Haberman decided they needed to get some kind of scannable symbol in place to move people through checkout lines faster. They laid out a list of specifications that their ideal symbol would have and asked 14 companies, including IBM, to come up with a solution.

That’s where George Laurer comes into the story.

The Untold History of Where Barcodes Come From

(Courtesy of Bill Selmeier, idhistory.com)

Laurer was working at IBM at the time (Engineering was Fun!) and was tasked with making Woodland’s circular “Classifying Apparatus and Method” work. But Laurer didn’t think the bulls-eye would fulfil the specifications set forth by the grocery industry. So he set out to make something that would. Eventually, Laurer came up with a rectangular design that fit more code into less space and didn’t smear on the presses (like Woodland’s bulls-eye symbol did). The “Symbol Selection Committee” voted unanimously for Laurer’s rectangular symbol and code, which they named the Universal Product Code, or UPC. A year later, in 1974, a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum became the first item to be scanned with a UPC barcode.

According to GS1 (Global Standards One), the agency which issues barcode numbers, there are now about 5 billion barcodes scanned every day around the world.

Laurer and Woodland’s original barcodes have spawned a whole bunch of other barcodes that are used for all kinds of things. There’s Code 128, which is mostly used for packaging and shipping. There’s POSTNET, which is used by the post office to sort mail. There are barcodes that use radio frequencies to send out data, which are called RFID tags (though they aren’t really barcodes at all, they just get put in the same category because like barcodes).

And of course, there’s the all-too-ubiquitous QR (“quick response”) code.

The Untold History of Where Barcodes Come From

(Scan this image)

QR codes can be scanned with a cell phone (using any number of apps). Generally they link you to a website. Advertisers have been slapping them on so many things that people are experiencing “QR code fatigue.”

Unlike UPC barcodes, there is no central agency (Like GS1) giving them out. Anyone can get one at any time. Which allows people to do stuff like this:

QR Code Amy Goodman by Scott_Blake

Barcode art is nothing new. People have been getting barcode tattoos since the late 1980s in defiance of the capitalist, consumerist system barcodes have come to represent. Jerry Whiting will design one for you, even though he doesn’t think barcodes should be blamed for our frustrations about being a “cog in a larger monolithic machine.”

This building is probably not making an anti-consumerist statement since it is actually a shopping mall in Russia:

The Untold History of Where Barcodes Come From

(Credit: Anton Chmelev. See more barcode architecture here .)

After Woodland’s bulls-eye symbol was patented — but before Laurer’s UPC symbol was first implemented — railways experimented with a system called KarTrak to keep track of train cars. It worked a bit differently than Laurer and Woodland’s barcodes, and ultimately it didn’t work that well. It was abandoned in the early 1970′s.

The Untold History of Where Barcodes Come From

(Credit: Quinn Rossi)

Barcodes have penetrated so deeply into popular imagination that there is even aconspiracy theory about them. Some people believe that the number of the beast (666) is encoded into every UPC barcode. It’s more or less true that there are three sixes encoded into every barcode; the answer to why is bit technical (and has nothing to do with Revelations or Satan). George Laurer addresses it on his website(where you can see that he’s clearly tired of addressing it). But if you are still aren’t convinced that Laurer isn’t a satanist, we suggest you listen to the radio story. He may be the nicest man we’ve ever interviewed.

The Untold History of Where Barcodes Come From

(Courtesy of George Laurer. Available from Lulu Press.)

99% Invisible producer Katie Mingle spoke with UPC inventor and all-around swell guy George Laurer. Katie also spoke with Sanjay Sarma, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, and Jerry Whiting of Barcodenerds and Azalea Software.

Say hi to Katie on twitter @katiemingle.

Music: “The Sinuous Ribbon” — Mapstation; Muzak; “Schneeglock — Mondkuchen; “Trad Velecido” — Casino Vs Japan; “Climbing the Mountain” — Podington Bear; “Tryptilline Fabricate” — Casino Vs Japan; “Padding Ghost” — Dan Deacon; “Single Variation of Two” — Casino Vs Japan; “Two Boys and a Girl” — Podington Bear; “USA III” — Dan Deacon; “Heights”- OK Ikumi

Image: Shutterstock/Jiripravda


99% Invisible, the greatest podcast of all time, is a tiny radio show about design, architecture & the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world. You can Like them on Facebook here or follow them on Twitter here. To subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, head over here.

This post has been republished with permission from Roman Mars. It was originally published on 99% Invisible’s blog, which accompanies each podcast.


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