November 27, 2015
The History Behind How Barcodes Changed Inventory Tracking Technology

If necessity is the Mother of all invention, then history is its Father. All technological advances stand on the shoulders of previous discoveries. The history of the barcode as an inventory tracking technology is evidence of these facts.

“Closed for inventory”
When retailers had to check inventory manually, by hand, they had to close their business to do so. Keeping up to date on inventory meant losing business for as long as it took to complete. There had to be a simpler way. In 1932 Wallace Flint proposed the idea of using a punch card to make inventory easier to track. It was a good idea… on paper. The problem with the punch card technology was that the machines required to read it were far too bulky and far too expensive to be a feasible option for retailers at that time. Inventory technology existed, but it wasn’t viable for small businesses.

Morse Code
The inventory tracking problem remained, so the ideas for solving it continued to arise. In 1948 Norman Joseph Woodland created the first prototype for a linear barcode using a combination of Morse Code and movie soundtrack technologies. He retained the dots and dashes of Morse Code but extended them vertically to create the bars. Woodland incorporated the movie soundtrack technology to scan the codes and send the signal through a tube of sorts. It worked primitively but, once again, it required bulky equipment. And the light bulb bright enough to create the scan wasted significant amounts of energy. Lasers didn’t exist yet.

In order to make it possible to scan the code from any direction, Bob Silver had the idea to keep the wide and narrow lines but to use them in a circular, bullseye configuration. The intention was good, but if the ink smeared at all during printing, the code became useless. Technology still hadn’t caught up to the ideas.

It wasn’t until lasers and integrated circuits were developed and accessible to the general population that technology caught up to the bar code idea. It started with the UPC code in 1973 and has since translated to EAN and QR codes as well.

Retailers no longer have to close up shop to do inventory. Barcode technology keeps track at checkout. Checkout lines move faster and stay shorter without staff increases. Self-checkout is possible, and those little registry “guns” get husbands and fathers on board with their significant others’ gift registries.

Advances in scan technology now make it possible to use barcodes to pull up detailed product information in real time. QR codes enable shoppers to use their mobile devices to scan for additional information. Universal barcodes enable retailers to check inventory in multiple locations using an iPad POS system on the sales floor.

Initially, the barcode was an idea ahead of its time, but over time it developed into a precise inventory tracking technology system used in industries as varied as libraries and produce stands, electronics and fashion. You will be stretched to find a product anywhere that doesn’t have a barcode on its packaging. And to think, that hasn’t always been the case.

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