A History of the Bar Code

Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Learn About Bar Codes

bar codes, bar code history

The warm sands of South Beach, laser beams, and an invention capable of changing the world—you’d be forgiven for mixing up the story of the bar code with the newest Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster.


In the post-World War II economic boom, business owners were faced with a dilemma. They had more customers than ever before, but those customers were spending precious time waiting in line while clerks manually rang up their purchases. Accordingly, more products were passing through stores than ever before, but managers were also wasting valuable time on employees slowly checking inventory. A solution was required that would prioritize speed and efficiency.


More importantly, there needed to be a national—if not, international—standard for this system. Mass-marketed products like groceries and electronics could not be made with unique codes for every individual store.

Enter: the bar code.


The Beginnings of the Bar Code

bar codes, bar code history

Before we can get to the Universal Product Code (UPC) we all know and love, we need to take a trip to the beach. Miami Beach. Before those little lines on every package could become a reality, there needed to be a moment of inspiration.


The owner of a Philadelphia supermarket sought a meeting with the Dean of the Drexel Institute of Technology. The delays faced by his store from check out and inventory was costing him major money. The dean blew off the request, but a postgraduate student named Joe Woodland was confident that he could come up with a solution. He was so confident that he left school and moved into an apartment in Miami Beach owned by his grandfather while he worked on the problem.

bar codes, bar code history

Woodland’s eureka moment came while he was sitting on the beach, stuck his fingers in the sand, and dragged them to create four straight lines. The lines reminded Woodland of Morse code and he lighted on the idea that a similar system could be used. Working with his partner, Bernard Silver, Woodland refined the idea and decided a circle shape would be better for a rectangle—so the code could be read from any direction. Unfortunately, as Woodland and Silver tossed around different ideas to make their codes accessible, they decided the technology required was at least twenty years away from being invented.

Making the Bar Code Work

Roughly twenty years later, the technology had arrived. Many people kept working on how to make a computerized sorting system work, pushing the ideas first suggested in Woodland’s patent. Everyone agreed that you needed some combination of lasers and cameras to properly “read” the code.

bar codes, bar code history

The first such laser that could be used for this application came from Theodore Maiman of the Hughes Aircraft Company. Although many newspapers editors were terrified of his “science fiction death ray”, other researchers were intrigued by the possibilities Maiman’s new invention could unlock. Kroger Grocery Stores and RCA were of the similar mindset that this new laser could be the missing piece on how to read inventory codes.

The final hands the nascent bar code would pass through were those of George Laurer of IBM. The U.S. Government had created a Symbol Selection Committee to decide what universal system would be used to sort, catalog, and price items like groceries and other inventory. They were nearing their final decision when Laurer arrived with a reversal of Woodland’s original idea to make his lines a circle. Laurer proved to the committee that the rectangle shape would work just as effectively as the circle and, more importantly, there were nearly zero printing errors with the rectangle compared to the circle.

This part of the story ends in Troy, Ohio on a calm morning in June 1974 when a 67-cent pack of gum became the first transaction ever to use a UPC.


The Legacy of the Bar Code


Recently, QR codes and RFID codes have become popular additions to packaging, but bar codes remain. Look around you, right now. It’s likely that there is at least one, if not many, UPC-marked items within a few feet of you. The bar code is a piece of technology that has completely changed the way humans interact while being something people never stop to consider. The idea behind the bar code is deceptively simple, which is why it has endured.


GCB Solutions has the packaging industry experience to help you through shifting trends. Whether you are beginning the design process or looking to make that final push to launch, we can help.


Call us at (904) 263-2804 or schedule a free consultation, today!