Barcodes seem like a simple invention. At first glance, they are one of the simplest inventions that one could think of, just a series of black and white lines and spaces arranged on a two-dimensional surface. To stop and think about the history of the barcode, though, is to realize that barcodes have proven over the course of time to be one of the most significant and ubiquitous inventions of the last century. Barcodes have changed the way the economy works by allowing businesses to better track the movement of their products throughout the marketplace. From barcode scanners to barcode software, there are entire industries around products that simply allow businesses and individuals to more easily work with barcodes and improve the efficiency of their operations.
With the rise in what’s possible with data science and data analytics, a surge that means the information provided by barcodes is more valuable than ever before, barcodes are poised for even greater importance in the future. All of that importance aside, however, there is a lighter side to the little black-and-white matrix that has come to symbolize our culture of commerce. The history of the barcode is full of fun facts as well as important milestones. Here is a look at some of the more in-depth, interesting and informative episodes in the history of barcodes.
The First Barcode Design
Everyone is familiar with the black and white stripes of a barcode. Despite the simplicity of the design—or maybe because of it—the barcode has become a cultural icon. The plain lined and spaced barcode is frequently used by artists, and there is even a whole museum dedicated to barcode art. All these barcode representations in our culture make it hard to imagine the barcode looking any different than it does today. In fact, the original barcode design was something altogether different: a bulls-eye! That’s right, instead of a rectangle of parallel black-and-white lines, the first barcode was a bulls-eye. Imagine a bulls-eye logo on every container in the supermarket and every tag on clothing. The first bulls-eye-shaped barcode was patented in the 1940s by two guys who were looking for a solution to grocery store checkout lines. They definitely hit the bulls-eye—just not with the design.
The First Barcoded Products
While many barcode pioneers were thinking about supermarket checkout lines, the first use of the barcode was actually on railroad cars. The first actual use of the barcode was to keep track of railroad cars, which makes sense if you think about crowded railway stations and lots full of train cars that all look the same. Of course, most people didn’t become familiar with the barcode until it became a supermarket standard, but WWII-era railroad workers had the jump on seeing and working with barcodes. The first UPC code—the code used by most barcodes today—wasn’t used until 1974 on a pack of chewing gum.
A Barcode Video Game?
It might not seem like fun compared with the realistic graphics and virtual reality involved in today’s video games, but there was once a very popular barcode video game. Players could scan any barcodes they saw and face different monsters and challenges that changed based on the barcode. The game was particularly popular in Japan. Who knew?