Placing the barcodes higher

Late inventor's enduring invention started in the sand

By Morand Fachot

Joseph Woodland, the inventor of the barcode, passed away aged 91 last December. Although Woodland and his associate Bernard Silver received a US patent for "Classifying Apparatus and Method" in 1952, it took until the mid-1970s for barcodes to start to be used in retail – and then only on a very small scale. A subcommittee of ISO/IEC JTC (Joint Technical Committee) 1, Information technology, prepares International Standards for the ubiquitous marking and all devices that use it.

Joseph Woodland (1921-2012) co-inventor of the original barcode Joseph Woodland (1921-2012) co-inventor of the original barcode

Lines in the sand

In a 1999 interview with Smithsonian magazine Woodland recalled how he came across the idea of visually encoding and representing product data whilst on a beach in the winter of 1948-49. "I poked my four fingers into the sand and for whatever reason – I didn’t know – I pulled my hand toward me and drew four lines. I said: 'Golly! Now I have four lines, and they could be wide lines and narrow lines instead of [Morse code] dots and dashes'". Woodland added, "Only seconds later I took my four fingers — they were still in the sand — and I swept them around into a full circle." The pattern formed the basis of the 1952 design that received a US patent.

The initial code resembled a bull’s eye and required a very large scanner. It remained unused for nearly two decades before being modified into a black and white rectangle by IBM engineers in the early 1970s. It was subsequently adopted as the industry standard in 1973.

No barcodes without International Standards

International Standards for bar coding are prepared by ISO/IEC JTC (Joint Technical Committee) 1, Information technology, SC (Subcommittee) 31, Automatic identification and data capture techniques, which was created in 1996.

The technology of bar coding is based on the recognition of patterns encoded in bars and spaces of defined dimensions. There are numerous methods of encoding information in bar code form, known as symbologies. The rules defining the translation of characters into bar and space patterns, and other essential features of each symbology, are known as the symbology specification.

As of February 2013, ISO/IEC JTC 1 SC 31 had published 103 International Standards. These cover the coding and also specifications for all equipment used to mark, identify or interpret the various types of barcodes, as well as the more recent QR (Quick Response) code and optical recognition characters.

Slow take-up leading to widespread use

Rectangular barcodes first appeared on grocery products in 1974 but the lack of scanners meant a slow initial take-up. Once these were introduced on a large scale the benefits of barcodes became evident, translating into lower operating costs and increased sales. Barcodes sped up operations at the cash register and allowed sales and stocks to be monitored and managed.

Initially limited to retail, barcodes were rapidly adopted in many other sectors, such as logistics, air travel or healthcare.

Barcodes are widely used in hospitals and maternity units. In the latter, babies get a personal bar code strapped onto their wrist or ankle. This can be scanned to read the newborn's details and name of the mother in a matter of seconds. Barcodes for babies or patients in hospitals also eliminate the chance of misreading poorly hand-written facts or figures in health notes, so reducing the risk of conditions and diseases going unnoticed.

In air travel, barcodes are used to match luggage and traveller and give precise and crucial indications regarding the overall weight of luggage on aircraft. In logistics and transport they ease identification and allow items to be dispatched rapidly to the right place.

Squaring the circle

What started as a circular pattern, and seemed for a long time to offer few interesting prospects, has found its way into many domains certainly not foreseen by Woodland. It also led to the creation, more than 50 years later, of the square QR code which can now be found on countless products and labels. QR codes can be scanned and read by mobile devices that convert them into information or open Internet links in browsers to direct users to articles, company websites or additional information.

Woodland's name will remain closely associated with the barcode, whatever shape it may take in the future, and ISO/IEC JTC 1 SC 31 will ensure the preparation of the relevant International Standards for barcodes and related equipment.

Joseph Woodland (1921-2012) co-inventor of the original barcode Joseph Woodland (1921-2012) co-inventor of the original barcode
Squaring the circle: today's 2D QR code is the direct descendant... Squaring the circle: today's 2D QR code is the direct descendant...
...of Woodland's circular design (drawing from his 1952 patent file) ...of Woodland's circular design (drawing from his 1952 patent file)