A History Of The Bar Code: Homage To A Commerce Classic

The next time you successfully purchase an item with a bar code on its packaging, keep N. Joseph Woodland in mind.

The name will be foreign to most. Woodland, a graduate student at the Drexel Institute of Technology in 1948, is in many ways the progenitors of the most ubiquitous technology used by retailers today.

A recent Bloomberg article takes time to highlight Woodward’s contributions, and tells the interesting tale of how the idea for the bar code was born.

According to the piece, Woodland became obsessed with a request made to him and a fellow student, Bernard Silver, by a supermarket executive: create a technology that encodes product information. Woodward subsequently dropped out of school to focus on the idea, and supposedly conceived of the idea for bar codes while dragging his fingers through the sands of Miami Beach.

Using lines of varying lengths and widths like physical expressions of the dashes and beeps used in Morse Code, Woodland submitted his bar code patent in 1949. Despite his death in December of that year, his contributions have changed the way we buy and merchants’ store products forever.

In addition to the historical overview, the article also cites three reasons why bar codes “took over the world:” simplicity, a governing body and market seeding.

Simplicity is what allowed bar codes to replace the error-filled system that saw cashiers manually tap numbers on a register keyboard when making a sale. Bar codes were easy to use and addressed an obvious need.

A consortium of retailers helped select IBM’s UPC bar code as the industry standard, cementing the decision for merchants everywhere. As the article states, “If every supermarket and potato chip maker had chosen its own product-information technology, chaos would have ensued.”

And finally, an effort to seed the market was also key in helping the ascension of bar codes, and the rise of Walmart, with it’s “legendarily efficient distribution system,” played a key role. The article compared it to the “Fresno Drop” of 1958, when 60,000 credit cards were provided to a community in order to increase interest and use.

Since we’ve highlighted the usefulness of QR codes many times recently – essentially the digital evolution of bar codes – over more complex technologies, it’s interesting to view what made the bar code useful, and how similar causes can drive technological adoption today.

One of the most interesting bar code competitors today: Square. Reviewing the top three criteria listed above, Bloomberg gave the following analysis:

“Simplicity? Check. Square has developed a small plastic device that plugs into an iPhone or iPad to allow customers to swipe their credit cards. It also has an app that enables purchases by smartphone. A splashy move to dominate the market? Check. Last month Starbucks began using Square’s technology in 7,000 U.S. locations. Strong consortium or governing body? Not yet. There’s still a tangle of competing alliances. So for now, Square has only two out of the three ingredients, and a long way to go to become as enduring as Woodland’s big idea.”

To read more about the history of the bar code and its success, read the original Bloomberg piece here.

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