Parallel lines? Not always – the first usable barcodes were concentric circles. The second part of the journey is a history of one small detail of everyday life the importance of which we are little aware of today.
In the first part, we discovered how the idea of the barcode was born. We are in Philadelphia, where Woodland and Silver are trying to develop a functional scanning system with available technologies. They file their patents in 1949 and three years later they get it. The rough draft illustrates the essence, but it is only a fraction of what both designers actually built.
The prototype was built at Woodland’s house, and a strong 500-watt bulb was used for lighting. The code was “read” using an oscilloscope, and their devices occupied the entire work table. According to the information available, it worked to some extent – but it was some decades before its time. Woodland and Silver came up with the right idea, but they lacked the essentials: a small enough computer, and above all, a strong light that would illuminate the black-and-white code and allow it to be read.
Such a Stronger Light
Original patent of the bar code (United States Patent and Trademark Office)
In mid-July 1960, a Californian company named Hughes Aircraft Company held a press conference in New York, where they showed the world one of the greatest inventions of science. Their researcher, Theodore Maiman, had developed an “atomic radio light brighter than the core of the Sun”; that is, a laser, which is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.
When journalists were interested in what the laser was, Maiman told them that the beam was so concentrated and cohesive that if it was sent from Los Angeles to San Francisco, dispersion at the end would be only thirty meters. It is so hot and sharp that it could cut different materials. The scientists themselves did not know exactly what the laser would eventually do; they imagined using them in science and communications, in the welding and cutting industry, or as a fine surgery instrument.
Cash desks in supermarkets did not come to mind.
Meanwhile, shop keepers were longing for a new innovation. For example, the Kroger supermarket chain wished for a better future in one of its brochures in 1966: “We are just dreaming a little … if the price of the goods could be read by an optical scanner and then calculate the total amount … faster and more efficient services – it is desperately lacking.”
Pens from Space
At that time, a small research team of the leading communications company Radio Corporation of America (RCA), was looking into new projects (one of them was the concept of a cash machine that the company did not develop because “customers would not accept it”). In the end, the barcode became the object of their focus.
It did not take long, and Woodman’s and Silver’s patents were at hand. However, it was not the original rectangular barcode from the sand in Miami Beach, but a “target“ code consisting of concentric circles, which should have been more advantageous: they thought that such a code would be easier to read from all angles.
It may seem that for the development in technology someone pressed the fast forward button. Do you know which innovations are now changing the logistics chain?
The biggest problem was printing the labels with codes, as the system did not work when there were the slightest inaccuracies. The use of rotating heads with ball beads, originally designed for astronauts and able to write “upside down” solved a lot of this problem. Development, involving a number of partners of RCA, culminated in the first real-life tests at the Kroger store in Cincinnati. The first cash register with the reader was installed there on July 3, 1972.
Cash registers were added later and the potential seemed enormous, and were popular with customers. Target barcodes were becoming very popular. Still, it was just one supermarket; there were still thousands more across the United States waiting for billions of dollars. It was necessary to conquer the world to achieve success. Read again next time to find out how the revolutionary laser and bar code evolved.