From the supermarket to your coffee order, you’ll find that barcodes are everywhere. They’ve also become a sign of conformity in almost all forms of media. Barcodes are synonymous with order, going back to their conception in 1932 when grocery stores were looking for a way to track inventory. Today, they are ubiquitous and critical to most retail industries.


Barcodes keep products organized within databases and keep products universally recognized.

The Need for Barcodes

Before the advent of the barcode, managing supermarket inventory was a challenge. Overlooked groceries could spoil easily, and selling out of popular items could have a negative impact on a grocery store’s bottom line. This problematic manner of inventory control paved the way for modern-day barcodes and supply-chain management.

In 1932, grocery retailers began the search for an easy, effective way to track their products and shore up their inventory. A Harvard business student, Wallace Flint, developed a punch-card system that was inspired from the 1890 United States census. Unfortunately, this concept never ended up being implemented due to its cumbersome nature and expense.

Woodland and Silver’s Idea

In 1948, a Drexel University (then called Drexel Institute) graduate student by the name of Bernard Silver overheard a conversation between a dean and a food company owner. The conversation revolved around automating the data collection process for supermarket checkout. Silver mentioned what he had heard to a friend, Norman Joseph Woodland. Woodland was fascinated by the idea and began conducting research of his own.

In 1949, a patent describing two types of barcode systems was filed by Woodland and Silver. These two types of barcode systems borrowed elements from movie soundtrack technologies and Morse code. These barcode systems were known as the linear and bullseye barcode systems.

Linear Barcode System

Linear barcode symbologies (UPN, EAN, GS1-128) are one-dimensional barcodes. These barcodes contain a sequence of vertical black bars and white spaces. The unique combination of these lines and spaces is defined by a particular set of numbers or letters.

Since these barcodes have a limited storage space of just 85 characters, they refer the scanner to information stored in a database. They are not able to store the information themselves.

Bullseye Barcodes

In contrast, bullseye barcodes are circular and have the general appearance of a target, hence their name. These circular codes never grew to be as popular as linear barcodes due to the difficulty of creating and managing them. The bulky equipment needed was difficult to work with as well until the laser was invented in the 1970s. RCA was essential to the viability of the bullseye barcodes.

In 1962, Philco purchased the patent for bullseye barcodes and then sold it to RCA. Five years later, the Association of American Railroads began using barcodes to manage and keep track of their railroad cars. The system that they used was comprised of red and blue reflective stripes that were affixed to the sides of the cars. The stripes represented a six-digit company ID and a four-digit car number.

The First True Barcode System

In 1969, the first true barcode system was installed by the Computer Identics Corporation for General Motors and General Trading Company. Just one year later, the National Association of Food Chains put together a committee for United States supermarkets. This committee was established to agree upon a uniform grocery product code.

Before this committee, there was no set standard among companies. In order to set a standard that would allow all companies to interface with barcodes and make it easier to do business among entities, a standard was needed.

In 1972, RCA testing began in a Cincinnati, Ohio Kroger store. This period of testing lasted 18 months and focused on the bullseye barcode system.

Introduction of the UPC

In 1973, the universal product code, or UPC, was introduced to the general public. This allowed all businesses to make use of barcodes for tracking and managing their inventory.

Just the next year, the first UPC retail product sold was a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum. It was purchased at a Marsh supermarket located in Troy, Ohio. By 1984, 33% of grocery stores nationwide were equipped with barcode scanners.

Introduction of the QR Code

Believe it or not, in 1994, machine-readable codes called quick response codes were invented by a subsidiary of Toyota called Denso Wave. QR codes are an array of black and white squares that store information such as URLs, or in the case of Toyota, they were scanned to track vehicles and parts. They have gained traction much more recently with the rise of smartphones.

How to Read a Barcode

There are a few different ways to read a barcode. You can either use a barcode scanner, download a program onto your phone or look up the barcode manually.

Most phones have the ability to read QR codes without the aid of other programs. Your phone’s camera should automatically register the QR code and redirect as needed, but if your phone does not have a QR code reader, you should be able to download one for free in your phone’s app store.

Types of Barcode Readers

Barcode scanners come in many different sizes and general capabilities. You can also buy one that uses your computer’s USB. These simple scanners will read the barcode and then translate the bars into numbers and letters. Simple readers will send the numbers to your computer’s Word or Excel programs.

If you need to track products or get up-to-date order information about a product, you will need a software program that has those capabilities. The advantages and disadvantages of barcode readers include their ability to quickly provide information about a product and the limitations that the expense of a barcode reader puts on a business.

Manual Barcode Lookup

There are a number of free services that can help you look up an ISBN or UPC barcode. One such free service can be found on It supports EAN, UPC and ISBN codes. This site also offers access to related databases for any registered products.

How Does a Barcode Reader Work?

Barcode readers scan the barcode and translate the lines or shapes into letters and numbers. The process of getting those lines and numbers into the scanner starts with an LED or other form of laser light that shines on the barcode.

While it may appear that this light is what is reading the code, that isn’t the case. Barcode readers don’t read the barcode. Rather, there is a photoelectric cell on the scanner. Photoelectric cells are light detecting, and they read the light that has been reflected back to the scanner from the barcode.

The electric circuit that is attached to the scanner will convert the read pattern into binary digits. Binary code is a set of ones and zeros that all electronics use to transfer data from one point to another. Some scanners are simple and only have one photoelectric cell. More complex scanners have whole arrays of cells.

Barcode Generator Software

Generating barcodes can be a very simple process. There are many different types of inexpensive or free software and systems available that can assist you. The first thing that you will need to understand is that every product to which you assign a barcode must use some existing symbology, such as UPC-A. You will need to tell your software where to start making barcodes, and then the program should be able to generate, store and print those codes.

Creating the actual barcode structure is completely up to you, though you will want to make sure that you come up with a system that is easy to use, easy to understand and expandable over time. This way, you won’t have to change barcodes as your company grows.