The entire U.S. economy could not function without barcodes. These black and white bars are allow airports to lose your luggage. They allow tracking of UPS and FedEx packages and sort letters at the U.S. Postal Service. They are found on assembly lines, on pallets and cases, on your passport and the wristband patients in hospitals wear. Researchers have even placed tiny barcodes on individual bees to track the insects' mating habits.

It all began in 1948 when Bernard Silver was a graduate student at Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. He overheard a local food store owner talking about research into a method for automatically reading product information during checkout. Silver joined fellow graduate student Norman Joseph Woodland to work on a solution.

Their first idea used patterns of ink that would glow under ultraviolet light but ink instability and expense were issues. In 1949, they filed their patent application for the “Classifying Apparatus and Method,” describing their invention as “article classification...through the medium of identifying patterns.” US Patent 2,612,994 was issued October 7, 1952; it was a “bull's eye” symbol, made up of a series of concentric circles. The symbology was made up of a pattern of four white lines on a dark background. The information was coded by the presence or absence of one or more of the lines. This allowed 7 different classifications of articles. With 10 lines, 1,023 classifications could be coded.

Woodland went to work for IBM and IBM offered to buy the patent. In 1962 Philco met their price, and they sold. Philco later sold the patent to RCA. The barcode as we now know it was first used commercially in 1966; however, it was soon realized that there would have to be an industry standard. The National Association of Food Chains (NAFC) called on equipment manufacturers for systems that would speed the checkout process. In 1967 RCA installed one of the first scanning systems at a Kroger store in Cincinnati. These barcodes were not pre-printed on the packaging, but were labels placed on the items by employees. There were problems with the RCA/Kroger bull’s-eye code. In 1969, the NAFC asked Logicon, Inc. to develop a proposal for an industry-wide barcode system. The result was the Universal Grocery Products Identification Code (UGPIC). The U.S. Supermarket Ad Hoc Committee on a Uniform Grocery Product Code was formed and McKinsey & Co. (a consulting firm) defined a numeric format for product identification. In 1973, the committee selected the UPC symbol (based on a proposal from IBM) as the industry standard.

The first company to produce barcode equipment for retail trade (using UGPIC) was Monarch Marking Systems (a tag and label printer). The UGPIC evolved into the UPC symbol set or Universal Product Code. The use of scanners grew slowly at first. A minimum of 85 percent of all products would have to carry the codes before the system could pay off, and when suppliers reached that level, in the late 1970s, sales of the systems took off. In 1978 less than one percent of grocery stores had scanners. By mid-1981 the figure was 10 percent, by 1984 it was 33 percent, and today more than 90 percent are so equipped.

In June 1974, one of the first UPC scanners, made by NCR Corp. (which was then National Cash Register) was installed at Marsh’s supermarket in Troy, Ohio. On June 26, 1974, the first product with a barcode was scanned at a check-out counter. It was a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum which just happened to be the first item lifted from the cart by a shopper. That very pack of gum is on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

The first industrial application of automatic identification began in the late 1950s by the Association of American Railroad. By 1967, the Association adopted an optical barcode. Car labeling and scanner installation began on October 10, 1967. It took seven years before 95 percent of the fleet was labeled. For many reasons, the system simply did not work and was abandoned in the late 1970's.

What really got barcodes into industrial applications occurred in 1981 when the Department of Defense adopted the use of Code 39 for marking all products sold to the United States military. This system was called LOGMARS. But, it was retail applications that drove the early technological developments of bar coding, and industrial applications soon followed.

EAN-13 is used worldwide for marking retail goods. Of the 13 characters: the first two or three identify the country in which the manufacturer is registered (not necessarily where the product is made). The country code is followed by 9 or 10 data digits (depending on the length of the country code) and a single digit checksum. 2-digit and 5-digit supplemental barcodes may be added for a total of 14 or 17 data digits. ??

The Uniform Code Council (the organization which issues retail codes in the US) announced that January 1, 2005 will be the date by which all retail scanning systems in the US must be able to accept the EAN-13 symbol as well as the standard UPC-A. This change eliminated the need for manufacturers who export goods to the US and Canada to double-label their products.

Barcodes are scanned about eight billion times a day. A PricewaterhouseCoopers study estimated that barcodes save customers, retailers, and manufacturers $30 billion a year in the supermarket and mass-merchandise sectors alone. Silver died in 1962 at age 38 before having seen the commercial use of barcode. Woodland was awarded the 1992 National Medal of Technology by the first President Bush. Neither men made much money on the idea that started a billion dollar business.

Within a few years the RFID (Radio Frequency ID) will negate the need for barcodes and scanning. Each package will broadcast its code and this will open a new world for printers, retail operations, and just about any application you can imagine.