What Do the Numbers on a Barcode Mean?

You go to a store, pick your item and a cashier scans it and totals the amount of money you owe. How did people buy items before the invention of barcode scanning? Most people care little to know the history of the barcode and how it has simplified commerce. For the entrepreneur, inspiration can strike in the strangest of places. Reading about the barcode could give you a world-changing idea.


Before the invention of the bar code, taking inventory was a tedious, long and fairly inaccurate process. It was an argument between the dean of Drexel Institute of Technology and a local food executive that gave an industrious inventor the idea and motivation to design an automated inventory scheme during the late 1940s. By 1952 Norman Woodland had built the first working bar-code scanner.

How It Works

The simplicity of the bar code may explain its popularity and adoption as standard in business. Each "bar" on a bar code represents a different letter or symbol. Then a scanner uses photo-sensitive light to read the width of each bar and translate it into readable characters for a computer. Each bar-code system uses special characters to denote the beginning and end of a bar code to allow one to scan it from any angle.

What Do The Numbers Mean?

Manufacturers print the numerical meaning beneath the bars just in case someone needs to manually enter the reference code. There are several reasons why a bar-code scanner may not work properly. The product may have inadvertently been taken out of the database of products that the store sells, or physical damage may make the bar code unreadable.


There are several types of bar-code "languages" or "symbologies," but the most common one used in retail is the UPC. The UPC code "tells" the computer the manufacturer and product name, while the computer terminal accesses a database of prices. U.S. government uses Code 39, which only uses letters and numbers for keeping track of military and agency hardware.

Home Use

Very few if any bar-code scanners are sold for personal use. The only known personal bar-code reader was the CueCat given away by Radio Shack during the early 2000s. Many DVD enthusiasts buy excess CueCats to help organize very large collections. Some large-volume auction sellers on sites such as eBay have modified the CueCat to help them keep track of inventory online without the costs of a standard bar-code scanner.


About the Author

Russell Huebsch has written freelance articles covering a range of topics from basketball to politics in print and online publications. He graduated from Baylor University in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science.