Barcoding: A Brief History, How They Work, Their Types & Uses

History of the Barcode

The barcode was invented, almost by accident, by Norman Joseph Woodland in 1948. Bernard Silver, a fellow Drexel Institute graduate student with Woodland, overheard a conversation between a supermarket executive and an engineer on whether product information could be captured automatically at a checkout. Silver was interested and mentioned the problem to Woodland. While on a beach in Florida, Woodland drew dots and dashes in the sand, similar to the shapes of Morse code. After pulling the dots and dashes downwards with his fingers, he came up with a concept of the first ever linear barcode. In October 1949, they applied for a patent which was received in October 1952 covering both linear and bulls-eye designs. Long story short: Woodland got employed by IBM, sold the patent to Philco, who then sold it to RCA before the patent expired in 1969. In 1971 IBM started work on developing what is now UPC (Universal Product Code), beating their competition, RCA. The first item scanned in public was a packet of chewing gum in an Ohio supermarket in 1974. Woodland died from Alzheimer’s on the 9th of December 2012, at the age of 91.


Today the barcode has a powerful impact on our lives without us even noticing it. We all take the barcodes of today for granted. Imagine doing your weekly shop, but having to manually type in the product number for each item you've put in your trolley. Imagine how much longer it would take for courier drivers to collect and deliver every parcel if they had to manually enter each consignment number instead of scanning it. Air travel is already busy enough. Imagine if every suitcase had to be manually keyed in instead of scanned. Don't be fooled. The barcode isn't some magical selection of lines/dots that contain all the information that is being scanned. Most of the time it's the receiving software that cross-references the barcode with the rest of the data in a database. Check out the 2 example flow charts below.

The process of scanning a barcode

I think it's important to point out what a barcode scanner really is. It's a keyboard. Or at least that's what the computer, phone, tablet, or whatever you connect it to thinks it is. It reads the lines/dots as keystrokes, much like what I'm doing right now to create this article. In fact, there's not much to say this article wasn't created by scanning a barcode or two. Contrary to popular belief, barcode scanners are actually reading the white space between the black lines/dots. Below I have simplified the process behind reading a barcode from a label onto the computer. Where it goes from there, is down to whatever software might be open at the time.

Other ways to scan a barcode can include using an app on your smartphone. Using the camera, the app will read the barcode in more or less the same way as above, but without the need for additional light sources or lasers.

Types of Barcodes

There are 2 main categories of barcode: 1 dimensional, and 2 dimensional. 1D barcodes (also known as linear), work by having their data in a single or multi-line format. You're likely to come into contact with these sort of barcodes on a daily basis. For starters, there will be one on the box of breakfast cereal you had this morning, one on the milk bottle you used for your hot drink, one on the clubcard keyring attached to your keys, one on most of the receipts you have stuffed in your wallet. All these barcodes are likely to be EAN8/13, CODE128, and maybe even ITF. Barcodes such as CODE 49 could be classed as a 2D barcode as it's a stack of 1D barcodes that are intended to be read 1 line at a time.

2D barcodes such as the QR code displayed here are well known and used in a wide variety of places including business cards, advertising, on packaging, and even at my local sandwich shop for a quick reference of ingredients and allergens. Impressively, QR codes have a fairly large window of error correction (which can be adjusted in the creation of a QR code), this allows for damage or modification beyond its recommended use. As displayed in the neighbouring example, I have added the Labelzone exclamation logo to the middle of it (destroying roughly 11% of the QR code), and it still scans correctly first time, everytime. This


Optical character recognition (OCR) is the identification of printed characters, usually by use of a camera and software, that are then converted into raw data for use in other software such as a word processor. Today OCR technology and powerful portable devices gives everyone the ability to take text from their surroundings and save it into a file or email. Google has taken advantage of this technology with their Translate app, which integrates augmented reality to overlay the translated text over the original text on the screen. As much as OCR and barcode scanning seem likely to go hand-in-hand, the earliest ideas OCR were first conceived back in 1870s as an aid to help the visually impaired read. The first OCR tools were invented and applied in industry in the 1930s. Intelligent Machines Research Corporation was the first company to create and sell such tools which were able to interpret Morse code and read text out loud. OCR is quick and powerful, but has little to no error correction unlike most barcodes. Barcoding will always be the quicker, more accurate from of data capture for the industries they're already used in. If you're looking for a label printer to print barcodes, give us a call and we'll talk you through the consumables and find the right printer for you.