The Curious History of The Barcode, GS1 and its Relevance in Australia
Date Posted:1 December 2020
We tend not to give much thought to the thousands of barcodes that surround us on any given day, but these small information-filled labels have a fascinating past involving beach sand, chewing gum and a frustrated supermarket manager.
First, the history of the barcode
Where did the seemingly simple concept behind barcode labels come from? The story goes that in the late 1940s, the manager of a Philadelphia supermarket chain asked a dean at the Drexel Institute of Technology to come up with a way of reducing checkout delays and stocktaking times that were eating up his profits. While the dean might have dismissed the matter, this conversation was overheard by a junior postgraduate called Bernard "Bob" Silver. Bernard mentioned it to an inventor he knew, Norman Joseph Woodland, and together the two began work developing a product code that could be printed and scanned.
The vertical lines we now know and recognise came to Woodland as he sat on the beach one day in 1949. He had recalled Morse Code from his Boy Scouts days, and while drawing in the sand he extended a series of dashes and dots into lines and then those lines into a circle: the idea being that a round code would be easier to scan from any angle. Woodland and Silver’s ‘bullseye’ barcode patent was granted in 1952.
An image of Woodland and Silver’s original patent.
For the scanning process, the two borrowed from movie technology with a strong 500-watt incandescent bulb and an oscilloscope to read the code. It took nearly 20 years for technology to catch up with Woodland and Silver’s original plan, including the invention of the laser and a foray into using similar codes on railway cars in the 1960s. Woodland later worked with his employer IBM to develop the Universal Product Code (UPC), which takes the rectangular ‘bar’ form we know today.
One morning in 1974 the very first product with a barcode was scanned in a small town supermarket in Troy, Ohio. The item? A multi-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum, at a cost of 67 cents.
In 1976 the code was expanded to 13 digits which enabled barcodes to be used internationally. This led to the 1977 formation in Brussels of the European Article Numbering (EAN) Association, which would later become GS1. By 2005, over 90 countries would be using the one global system of GS1 for seamless barcode printing and scanning.
GS1 in Australia
GS1 has its own history in Australia starting back in 1978 with the formation of the Australian Product Numbering Association (APNA), which since then has undergone several name changes. Today, GS1 Australia is the go-to location for anyone looking to use barcodes across manufacturing, retail, healthcare, warehousing, logistics and more.
It’s quite extraordinary that in just 70 years, barcode technology has become the global standard in business information and that anyone can print their own with a barcode label printer and labels.
Thermal Labels manufactures barcode labels in Australia, including direct thermal barcode labels,
thermal transfer barcode labels and pre-printed barcode labels. thermallabels.com.au parent company, Barcode Australia is a GS1 Australia Alliance partner. For assistance with any of these products, simply get in touch with the team.