Like most innovations, barcode technology started with a problem looking for a solution. Unlike a lot of solutions, barcode technology wasn’t possible without the existence of a solution that had not yet found a problem it could solve. That solution was the laser—but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The nearest thing to a barcode as we know it was the invented by Bernard Silver and Norman Woodland, and for which they won a patent in 1952. Instead of a picket-fence pattern of bars and spaces, the Silver-Woodland barcode was a pattern of concentric rings not unlike a bull’s-eye. Circularity allowed omni-directional scanning, which was to be done with an electro-mechanical device also described in the patent. Unfortunately the circular pattern was difficult to print accurately, and the scanning device was not feasible, so the barcode solution went nowhere for a few years.
A few years later, in 1959, David Collins was looking for a way to automatically identify to railroad cars for his employer, the Pennsylvania Railroad. His system, called Kar Trak, was a barcode-like pattern of red and blue reflective stripes, encoding a company and a car number on the sides of the railroad cars. Economic factors and decoding problems due to dirt on the railroad cars conspired to kill the concept, but Collins saw the need for automatic identification gaining strength in other applications.
A few years earlier, Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow at Bell Labs had been working on microwave amplification by stimulated emission or radiation (Maser) but, in 1957, Gordon Gould, a graduate student at Columbia University, realized that the concept would work better with short wavelength visible light, and invented light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation (Laser). Stimulated emission was a process first described theoretically by Albert Einstein in 1917.
Re-enter David Collins, who formed Computer Identics Corporation in 1967 and began working with lasers instead of heavy, heat-producing photo-multipliers to decode black and white barcodes. Computer Identics installed its first scanning system at a General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan in 1969, identifying transmissions on a moving conveyor line. By this time, the U.S Postal Service was investigating the use of barcodes to track vehicle movement in their facilities, and pet food manufacturer KalKan was looking for a cheaper and simpler way of controlling inventory.
These developments caught the attention of the National Association of Food Chains where a discussion of automated checkout took place at an association meeting in 1966. Rights to the Woodland patent had been acquired by RCA, who was attending the NAFC meeting and association member Kroger volunteered to test the concept at a store in Cincinnati. By the mid-1970’s NAFC had formed the U.S. Supermarket Ad Hoc Committee on a Uniform Grocery Product Code; the committee’s mission: establish guidelines for formation of barcoding standards.
The 18 month test revealed problems with the bulls-eye configuration which was vulnerable to smearing and linear distortion, a problem which did not affect picket-fence style linear barcodes. On June 26, 1974 a 10 pack of Wrigley Juicy Fruit gum was scanned at Marsh’s Supermarket in Troy, Ohio. The pre-press film master for that barcode was imaged at Fotel, Inc. in Villa park, Illinois where I worked evenings and summers during high school and college.
Written by John Nachtrieb Mr. Nachtrieb has 30+ years of hands-on experience in barcode technology. His team imaged the film master for the first commercially scanned barcode in North America (1974). His specialty is barcode quality. He created and hosts a highly customized barcode quality seminar which has been presented to 100's of companies, reaching thousands of quality-concerned people, helping them to avoid barcode problems and manage barcode-related risk. Other articles by John Nachtrieb.