Bar code: how a code that came out of the sand of a beach transforms world trade

Bar code: how a code that came out of the sand of a beach transforms world trade


In the bar code, the width of the lines and the blank space between them is what indicates the sequence of numbers it represents Credit: Shutterstock

There are
two ways to tell this story.
The first describe one of those classic moments of inventive brilliance.

In 1948, Joseph Woodland, a graduate student at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, United States, was turning to a question that had been raised by a local merchant: there would be some way to
speed up payment in your stores automating the tedious process of registering the transaction?

Woodland was a smart young man. During the war he had worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. And, on the other side of the spectrum, he had also designed an improved system to play elevator music. But this riddle had him perplexed.

On a visit to her parents in Miami Beach, she sat on the beach to think, while playing distractedly with the sand, dropping it between her fingers. When his eyes fell on the
furrows and ridges that his game had left in the sand, something occurred to him.

Just as the Morse code uses dots and lines to convey a message, thin and thick lines can be used to encode information. A zebra stripe target (such as those used for target shooting) can describe a product and its price in a code that a machine could read.


Credit: Shutterstock

From Diana to Rectangle

With the technology of the time it was possible to realize the idea, but it was expensive. However, the advancement of computers and the invention of laser machines made it more realistic.

The system of the stripes that were scanned was independently rediscovered and refined several times over the years.

In the 50s, engineer David Collins stamped thin and thick lines on train cars so that they could be identified by automatically reading a scanner.

In the early 1970s, IBM engineer George Laurer came up with the idea that a rectangle will be more compact than the target Woodland had designed and developed a system that used lasers and computers so fast that it could process bags of products just by passing them over. the scanner.

The scribbles in the sand of Joseph Woodland had become a technological reality.

The other

But there is one
second way to tell the story. It is as important as the first, only it is much drier.

In September 1969, members of the administrative systems committee of the Association of Food Manufacturers (GMA) met with their counterparts from the National Association of Food Chains of the United States (NAFC for its acronym in English) ).


Being able to scan any product without having to enter its identification and price was a fundamental change for the boxes in the retail businessBeing able to scan any product without having to enter its identification and price was a fundamental change for the boxes in the businesses of sale to the public Credit: Shutterstock

Place of appointment: a motel in Cincinnati. The theme of the meeting: try to reach an agreement between GMA food producers and NAFC food sellers on a code for products.

The GMA wanted an 11-digit code, which encompassed several types of labels they were already using. The NAFC wanted one of 7 digits, which could be read by simpler and cheaper systems in the box. They could not agree and left frustrated.

I took years of delicate diplomacy – and countless committees, subcomits and ad hoc committees – until finally the US food industry agreed to a standard for the Universal Product Code or Universal Product Code (UPC).