Barcode Labels: The Signature of the Modern World
The idea for barcodes (also known as Universal Product Codes or UPC) and their associated labels began, improbably enough, with a man sitting on the sand in Miami Beach. Joe Woodland, an inventor from Ohio, was on vacation. He had been searching for a way to make grocery lines move more quickly. When he was a recent graduate of Drexel School of Technology in Philadelphia, a supermarket manager had approached the school asking for help in developing a new technology to speed up checkout lines. Woodland turned over a number of ideas in his mind, including Morse code which he had learned as a Boy Scout. However, that day on the beach he found himself drawing narrow lines and wide lines in the sand, and began to think about those patterns as an alternative to dots and dashes. A revolutionary technology was on its way to being born.
The familiar barcode label that today is so ubiquitous on commercial packaging did not appear right away, however; Woodland’s first barcode patent was for a circular bullseye type design. Early devices for reading the design ran the gamut from ultraviolet light-sensitive inks to photomultiplier vacuum tubes to 500-watt incandescent bulbs, but the optical scanner that incorporated a laser did not appear until more than 20 years after the first barcode patent was filed in 1949. The first barcode scanner was deployed in 1974, and the universal bars and stripes pattern was first introduced in 1991.
In the last half century, barcode labels have expanded to virtually every arena imaginable. From commerce, manufacturing, and supply chain to publishing, health care, entertainment and beyond, it is hard to imagine a world without them. Although the idea for bar codes started with the need for a universal system to systematize tracking and purchase of goods sold in supermarkets, they have become an indispensable market research tool in addition to a means of tracking just any object that moves through a supply chain. And they are not just used for pricing: they appear as serial numbers, product codes, and batch codes as well as being used to track the movement of people through a variety of systems such as air travel, movie theaters, hospitals,schools, government buildings, and many other venues.
Barcode labels are literally everywhere: small business owners and even individuals can generate and print their own using a variety of digital printing technology. They have become a part of our lives in ways we don’t even notice, and yet the modern world would be a very different place without them.
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