• Barcoding
  • Data Collection

State of the Industry: Past, Present and Future of Mobile Barcoding

Written by Robert Brice
November 10, 2022

Part 1: How Barcodes Started

Barcodes and mobile barcoding are so prevalent today that it may seem like they’ve been around forever. In fact, the opposite is true. Barcodes are a relatively recent invention.

And yet, while the barcode may have not been put into practice until more recently, the idea for it came many years before. Why the delay?

The delayed adoption of the barcode and today’s mobile barcoding technologies are more closely related than they might seem at first glance. To understand the relationship, we need to look at the history of the barcode. That history also explains the current state of the “barcode industry” – especially for manufacturing, distribution, life sciences and wellness, aerospace, and food and beverage companies. There are also insights to be gained into where the industry is going and why there is such a significant focus on mobile barcoding.

For an in-depth look at current industry trends, download our 2022 Digital Inventory Report:

Get industry insights with RFgen's 2022 Digital Inventory Report | Download now and learn about the importance of mobile barcoding on decision makers.

A Brief History of the Barcode

The design for what we would come to know as a barcode started off in the sand of a Florida beach. Oddly enough, the man who got inspiration from several lines in the sand and got people thinking about what would become the barcode was not the one who invented the barcode or universal product code (UPC) that we are all familiar with today.

History is full of twists and turns. The barcode’s history is no different.

Who Invented the Barcode?

Mobile barcoding began with a moment of inspiration on a beach in Miami.
Mobile barcoding began with a moment of inspiration on a beach in Miami.

Joe Woodland left graduate school in late 1948 and moved to Miami Beach to invent a new way for supermarkets to move people through the stores faster. One day while sitting on the beach he dragged his hand through the sand and while analyzing the lines, he thought of Morse code, and how different lines could have different meanings.

His idea was for a circular or bullseye-shaped barcode. Now, he just needed a way to read it. Heading back to Philadelphia, he started working on a device with a friend, Bernard “Bob” Silver. According to the two of them, the device they created with a 500-watt incandescent bulb worked, but inconsistently. What they needed was a brighter, focused light to read the code and a device to process the information.

In short, they needed a laser to scan and a computer to process. Those would come later.

Fast Forward 20 Years

The laser was invented in 1960 by Theodore Maiman of Hughes Aircraft Company. Computers had been developing, slowly.

Then, in 1972, RCA tested the circular barcode in a Cincinnati Kroger store. While it worked, the circular nature of the barcode didn’t work with all the products sold. For this technology to work, it needed to be universal.

The UPC Barcode, a Pack of Gum, and the Rest is History

The first item sold using a barcode was chewing gum.
The first item sold using a barcode was a pack of chewing gum.

Grocery chains recognized the potential to serve customers faster with barcode scanning. They weren’t, however, the only ones to see the benefit of barcodes. Railways had begun to use similar systems in principle earlier, although these applications couldn’t transfer to all industries, like the grocery chains.

Even before Kroger tested the circular barcode, representatives from the grocery trade had set out to settle on a standardized and universal barcode. Several companies got involved, creating proposals. RCA, with its success, felt certain to win. The actual winner was IBM, based on a rectangular code of varying line widths created by George Laurer.

Joe Woodland’s initial lines in the sand ultimately became the standard for what we know today as the UPC code, although the credit for its invention goes to George Laurer, since he was the one to create the actual UPC system.

Thus it was that in June of 1974 a pack of chewing gum was the first product scanned with the modern UPC code.

How did the barcode change the world of inventory management?

Barcodes are now and essential tool for grocery stores and many other types of businesses.
Barcodes are now an essential tool for grocery stores and many other types of businesses.

It took a while, but once companies saw the benefits of the barcode for inventory management, they never looked back. Tracking inventories became easier and more accurate. Managing inventories could be completed exponentially faster.

Grocery chains, retail stores, and manufacturers of consumer goods recognized the ability to deliver a more streamlined customer experience as well. Today, businesses across all industries rely on barcodes to manage inventory, serve customers, take care of patients and have even made it possible for companies like Amazon to revolutionize how we buy, sell, and ship.

Even as the barcode transformed the world of inventory management, mobile barcode scanning continues the evolution with wireless devices and mobile apps.

Come back in two weeks to read part 2 as we explore the role of barcode scanning, how scanners have evolved and continue to evolve, and the benefits of mobile barcode scanning.