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   A Short History Of Bar Codes

The bar code: born on a Florida beach.


In 1948, Joseph Woodland and his colleague Bob Silver both instructors at Drexel University in Philadelphia; Woodland in mechanically engineering department, Silver in electrical engineering. One day, Silver had an appointment with the dean of engineering. when he arrived at the dean's office, the dean was still busy with his previous appointment, so Silver set down in the office to wait. Since the door to the inner office was open, Silver could not help but overhear the conversation. He was talking to Sam Friedland, president of Food Fair, which remains one of the largest supermarket chains in the Philadelphia area. Friedland was trying to get the dean to initiate a research project to develop a system that could automatically capture the price of groceries at the checkout counter. Interestingly, the reason that Friedland was looking for such a system had nothing to do with reducing his labor cost. He had a completely different problem in mind, one that played the entire supermarket industry-- errors by cashiers, who would either enter incorrect prices for items or simply miss them entirely. In theory, it might seem the effects of a such a mistake should balance out over time. However, in practice, customers are more likely to call attention to an overcharge then to an undercharge. And supermarkets had long operated with extremely low margins. Indeed, just a few years after Friedman's conversation with the dean, a study would show that cashier's errors were costing the grocery industry some 0.7% of sales, a huge amount of money considering the large volumes and low profit margins involved. It is really not surprising that Friedland would be looking for a way to make the cashier process error free.   Unfortunately, Drexel University would not help him--at least not officially.
Silver listened in amazement as the dean turned Friedland away, apparently because he felt such commercial projects were not part of the university's mission. When he concluded his business with the dean, Silver dropped by Woodland’s office and told him what had happened. After listening to Silver's account, Woodland thought for a moment. " the main problems going to be with the orientation," he said. What ever marks you put on an item, you'd have to be sure that the shopper or the clerk or somebody would oriented it properly toward the device is going to read it. They talked for a while, Woodland suggested that shoppers could put the groceries on a belt that would carry them through tunnel or special device that would illuminate and read phosphorescence marks on them. The presence or absence of a mark would encode the price in a binary sequence of zeros and ones. Silver was able to find three different colors of phosphorus paint at a theatrical supply store. Woodland then persuaded a technician in Drexel's physics department to build them a crude spectrophotometer. Within three months after the conversation in the dean's office, Woodland and Silver had built a prototype system and had it working. With just three colors of phosphorescent paint, their device could read prices only up to . Woodland and Silver had quickly moved from thinking about the problem to action.
At this point, and events took an unexpected turn. While at Drexel had been taking some M.B.A. courses,  one of which was in corporate finance. The course had a term paper requirement; each student had to pick a company and find out whether its stock was a good buy. Woodland picked Atlantic City Electric, only because he knew that its treasurer was in the same Rotary club as his father. When he did his analysis of the company's stock, Woodland discovered that it was extremely undervalued and came to suspect that it would soon double in price, perhaps within six months. When, on Woodland’s behalf his father asked the company treasurer his opinion of the stock, he was told, " I'm buying all the stock I can. " so Woodland borrowed all the money he could to buy Atlantic City stock, and later he found out that his father and grandfather had also invested in it. As he had predicted, the stock did double in price. When he received an A + for his term paper, he suspected that his instructor might also have come along for the ride. When Woodland sold out, he found myself with some money for the first time in his life. And when he told Bob Silver that he planned to resign his position Drexel University and move into his grandfather’s apartment in Florida for three or four weeks to think about a practical way to automate the supermarket checkout process, Bob Silver told him he was crazy.
Woodland spent his first day in Florida sitting on the beach, trying to think of some sort of code that could be put on item’s packaging. Years before, when he had been interested in getting his amateur radio operators licensed he had passes his test for Morris code. In fact, Morris code was the only code he knew. As he thought about his problem for some time he absent mindedly pushed his fingers down into the sand. Pulling them out, he looked at them and there was the idea of |a code. In that moment on a Florida beach, the bar code was born. However, one problem remained.

How could such code be scanned? Coincidentally, Woodland and Silver had previously worked on an idea for recording sound. At one point, they had looked into the movie soundtrack technology and learned that it involve the sequence of lighter and darker patches on the film eliminated by a light beam. For an automated checkout system, Woodland figured that he could make a simple box that would sweep at the item with a moving source of light in similar fashion and detect the presence or absence of light reflected from wider or narrow phosphorescent bars. But before the system could be patented one more thing was needed: a device that could do the decoding automatically.

Woodland return to his parents' home in New Jersey to began drafting drawings and disclosure statements for a patent. At the same time he got back in touch with Bob Silver he told Silver that he had figured out a way to do what Sam Friedland had wanted. When he still needed, however, was some sort of a decoding system. If Silver could come up with something, Woodland suggested, they could file the patent as coinventors. Silver was up to the challenge. Using only three components, he designed and built a simple and somewhat clumsy system. Just one year after Silver accidently overheard Friedman's conversation with the dean, they had done. Consider this, if the dean had decided to go ahead with the project, would it have happened the same way? We he have asked  Woodland or Silver to work on it? Would it have happened in all?
In October 1949, Woodland and Silver filed the application for what would be the basic bar code patent. However, they changed their coding scheme from vertical lines to a bull's eye of concentric circles, so that they could be scanned from any direction. Three years later, in 1952 they would receive the patent, but would be another 20 frustrating years before the bar code would be realized commercially.

1952 was three years before the introduction of the first commercial computer the Univac I which cost $6 million each and greatly exceeded the value of the errors cashier's were making.  The laser had also not been invented yet and would not be commercially available for the next 20 years. Another basic mistake inventors made was not realizing that each grocery store wanted to be able to price the items themselves rather than have the item already priced. Today’s UPC bar code contains a product identifier that is looked up to find the price this giving stores the ability to change the price for sales or when their costs change

* This history has been taken from the book Corporate Creativity by Alan G. Robinson & Stam Stern published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc San Francisco Pages 126 -132

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