A very brief history of the barcode

A very brief history of the barcode

Everyone knows him. The barcode on everything you want to buy in the store. This year, the current barcode celebrates its 50th anniversary. From 2027, the well-tried codes are to be completely replaced by 2-D codes.

In the late 1940s, a desperate supermarket owner knocks on the door of the dean of the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia. He calls for a solution to get his customers through the store faster and thus increase sales. The dean rebuffs the shopkeeper, but a young engineering student starts taking care of the problem. Together with his former fellow student, he sets himself the goal of finding a solution.

In 1952, the two receive the patent for their basic idea of translating and depicting the Morse code using thick and thin lines. However, it is not clear for longer than hoped how the project can be implemented and, above all, how the strokes can be read in. The engineering is challenging. In an exchange with IBM, the team of inventors comes to the conclusion that elementary machine parts are missing in order to read the barcode at all.

At the same time, research is also being carried out in Switzerland on behalf of Migros together with technology partner Zellweger Uster AG.

In 1972, the researchers at Zellweger Uster AG recorded a successful pilot project in which they succeeded in reading barcodes with their own system. However, this system is not widely used. Back in America, research continues and the US food sector agrees on the Universal Product Code (UPC) standard. Developed together with IBM, the UPC experiences its breakthrough in 1973. A year later, the world's first barcode is scanned, a pack of Wrigely's chewing gum in Ohio.

Shortly thereafter, an EU standard is established in Europe in 1977 and the first scanner cash registers were used in Switzerland  in 1984. Since then, the technology of the barcode is constantly evolving. Today, barcodes are widely used for a variety of applications, such as logistics, retail, and medicine.

However, this is about to change. Moving away from the one-dimensional 50-year-old barcode, 2-D barcodes are to be used from 2027. These can display a lot more data in a very small area. Things like weight or expiration date of the product can be saved, which allows for faster product recalls, for example. However, the implementation requires new hardware and software in the retail trade, which will take time. On the consumer side, there will be apps that scan the new codes.

Until the 1980s, cashiers still completed blind typing courses in order to be able to enter prices as quickly as possible and without errors.

Source: ETH Library Zurich, Image Archive / Photographer: Comet Photo AG (Zurich) 1975-1985.