Stephen A. Brown, Uniform Code Council

Beginnings of the Bar Code

In 1949, a young graduate student was wrestling with the concept of automatically capturing information about a product. He believed that the dots and dashes of Morse code would to be a good model, but he could not figure out how to use those familiar patterns to solve his problem. Then, one day as he relaxed at the beach, he idly drew dots and dashes in the sand. As his fingers elongated the dashes he looked at the result and said, “Hey, I’ve got it.”

Three years later that graduate student Joseph Woodland and his partner received a patent on what began as lines in the sand, and the linear bar code was born. Much to the inventor’s surprise, however, it was not a rapid commercial success. Fifteen years were to pass before the first commercial use of the bar code. It was not a particularly successful use.

Bar codes were placed on the sides of railroad freight cars. As the freight car rolled past a trackside scanner, it was to be identified and, inferentially, its destination and cargo. The system failed, however, to take into account that freight cars bounced as they passed the scanner. Consequently, the accuracy of the scanning was poor.

The Technology of the Bar Code

A linear bar code is a binary code (1s and 0s). The lines and spaces are of varying thicknesses and printed in different combinations. To be scanned, there must be accurate printing and adequate contrast between the bars and spaces. Scanners employ various technologies to “read” codes. The two most common are lasers and cameras. Scanners may be fixed position, like most supermarket checkout scanners, or hand-held devices, often used for the taking of inventories. There should be (but typically is not), a distinction drawn between the code, which is a structure for the conveyance of data, and the symbol, the machine-readable representation of the code. The code is text, which can be translated into a multiplicity of languages – English, French, Japanese, symbol.

Notwithstanding its inauspicious beginning, the bar code has become a remarkable success, a workhorse in many and varied applications. One of the first successful bar codes, Code 39 developed by Dr. David Allais, is widely used in logistical and defense applications. Code 39 is still in use today, although it is less sophisticated than some of the newer bar codes. Code 128 and Interleaved 2 of 5 are other codes that attained some success in niche markets.

Bar Codes Are Now Everywhere

Today, bar codes are everywhere. Rental car companies keep track of their fleet by means of bar codes on the car bumper. Airlines track passenger luggage, reducing the chance of loss (believe it or not). Researchers have placed tiny bar codes on individual bees to track the insects’ mating habits. NASA relies on bar codes to monitor the thousands of heat tiles that need to be replaced after every space shuttle trip, and the movement of nuclear waste is tracked with a bar-code inventory system. Bar codes even appear on humans! Fashion designers stamp bar codes on their models to help coordinate fashion shows. (The codes store information about what outfits each model should be wearing and when they are due on the runway.) In the late 1990’s in Tokyo, there was a fad for temporary bar code shaped tattoos among high school girls.

The Universal Product Code

The best-known and most widespread use of bar codes has been on consumer products. The Universal Product Code, or U.P.C., is unique because the user community developed it. Most technological innovations are first invented and then a need is found for the invention. The U.P.C. is a response to a business need first identified by the US grocery industry in the early 1970s.

Believing that automating the grocery checkout process could reduce labor costs, improve inventory control, speed up the process, and improve customer service, six industry associations, representing both product manufacturers and supermarkets, created an industry wide committee of industry leaders. Their two-year effort resulted in the announcement of the Universal Product Code and the U.P.C. bar code symbol on April 1, 1973. The U.P.C. made its first commercial appearance on a package of Wrigley’s gum sold in Marsh’s Supermarket in Troy, Ohio in June 1974.

Economic studies conducted for the grocery industry committee projected over $40 million in savings to the industry from scanning by the mid-1970s. Those numbers were not achieved in that time frame and there were those who predicted the demise of bar code scanning. The usefulness of the barcode required the adoption of expensive scanners by a critical mass of retailers while manufacturers simultaneously adopted bar code labels. Neither wanted to move first and results looked unpromising for the first couple of years, with Business Week eulogizing “The Supermarket Scanner That Failed.”

Economic Impact of the U.P.C.

As scanning spread, however, the $40 million projection began to look very small. A 1999 analysis by Price Waterhouse Coopers estimates the U.P.C. represents $17 billion in savings to the grocery industry annually. Even more astounding, the study concludes that the industry has not yet taken advantage of billions of dollars of potential savings that could be derived from maximizing the use of the U.P.C.

The big winners – as one should have expected given the competitive nature of the markets involved – were consumers, since U.P.C. scanning generated efficiencies and productivity improvements that led to lower costs and/or greater customer service. Ironically, consumer advocates initially resisted the innovation and jeopardized its success by insisting that retailers forego substantial cost savings by continuing to mark prices on individual units. While the rise of bar coding benefited both manufacturers and retailers, it was the retailer who benefited the most. In addition to the labor savings, retailers now had access to detailed product movement data, which they turned into a profit center by selling the data to their suppliers.

Current Level of Use

The developers of the U.P.C. believed that there would be fewer than 10,000 companies, almost all in the US grocery industry, who would ever use the U.P.C. Today, there are over one million companies in more than 100 countries in over twenty different industry sectors enjoying the benefits of scanning, thanks to the U.P.C. U.P.C. symbols are everywhere in the retail environment. They can also be found in industries as diverse as construction, utilities, and cosmetics. Today, the U.P.C. is also spreading up the supply chain to use by the suppliers of raw materials. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the Uniform Code Council, Inc., the administrator of the U.P.C., could say with confidence that the U.P.C. symbol was being scanned over five billion times a day.

But innovation is dynamic. The linear bar code continues to evolve. Today, there are two-dimensional bar codes such as PDF 417 and MaxiCode capable of incorporating the Gettysburg Address in a symbol one-quarter of an inch square. RSS and Composite symbologies will enable the bar code identification of very small items such as individual pills or a single strawberry.

Future Uses

The future of automatic identification, however, is probably in radio frequency (RFID). Tiny transmitters embedded in items do not require a line of sight to the scanner, nor are they subject to degradation by exposure. Already in use in retail stores to help prevent shoplifting and on toll roads to speed traffic, the primary deterrent to wider use of RFID has been the cost of the silicon chips required. Today, the five-cent chip is close at hand. If the cost can be reduced to less than one cent a chip, in the future your breakfast cereal box will be a radio transmitter.


Stephen A. Brown, April 2001



Brown, Stephen A. Revolution at the Checkout Counter: The Explosion of the Bar Code. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997

Harmon, Craig K. Lines of Communication, Petersborough: Helmers Publishing, 1994

Nelson, Benjamin. Punchcards to Barcodes: A 200-Year Journey. Petersborough: Helmers Publishing, 1997


Collins, Jim. “A Quick Scan on Bar Codes,” Attache, January 1998

Green, Alan. “Big Brother is Scanning You,” Regardies, December 1990

Leibowitz, Ed. “Bar Codes: Reading Between the Lines.” Smithsonian, February 1999.

Price Waterhouse Coopers, “17 Billion Reasons to Say Thanks: The 25th Anniversary of the U.P.C. and Its Impact on the Grocery Industry.” 1999

See also, the Uniform Code Council, Inc.’s homepage:

Citation: Brown, Stephen. “A History of the Bar Code”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 14, 2001. URL