The label composed of vertical bars becomes a standard on April 3, 1973. And in the future it will evolve into a digital link.

The barcode turns 50. The ubiquitous label made up of vertical bars of different thicknesses became an operational standard exactly on April 3, 1973 when, in the United States, the largest companies in the consumer goods sector decided to introduce a single standard for product identification. It is the standard that we know today as GS1 and which is present on more than a billion shop and supermarket products in 116 countries.

But the 13-digit code has lived a real epic, which is not over yet. Its story begins earlier, with the experiments of two young American engineering students, Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver, who had the idea in 1948 and managed to patent it in 1952. The barcode was a numerical adaptation only and ” enlargement” of Morse code (the sequences of dots and dashes used in telegraphy) which was to be read optically. Early prototypes didn’t work because fixtures, such as xenon lamps, were extremely expensive. It was the introduction of lasers and integrated circuit scanners that made this technology possible and the creation of the first consortia of companies to create the single standard.

The barcode market is vibrant as is the underlying world of consumer products. The novelties follow one another by means of legislation and lead to real silent revolutions, almost always made in the interests of consumers. Like the European legislation which at the end of 2023 will see the mandatory introduction of the declaration of nutritional contents for wine. Impossible to put it on the labels, it will be necessary to transfer the information digitally

The BBC has put the barcode among the “50 things that made the economy global”, that is, that changed the way we shop forever. But the barcode will continue to do so in the future too, linking a physical product to digital information with the “GSI Digital Link”, the next version of the barcode which will be adopted by 2027 but which is already used today alongside or even replacing the “old” linear barcode in some countries including China.

The importance of the Digital Link is remarkable because it allows you to do many things. Identify the lot to which a single product belongs, its expiration date or other details, as well as link to a web page that shows the values information of the product and its packaging, as well as instructions for recycling it. The expiration date allows algorithmic automation of procedures today performed by hand to discount the shelf price when the expiration time approaches, as well as offering more in recognizing at checkout if a product has escaped checks and has expired.

Barcodes aren’t just those used by the consumer goods industry in 116 countries. The morphological standards of barcodes, ie the way in which characters are encoded for optical reading, is the equivalent of an alphabet. Furthermore, there is not a single model with vertical bars, i.e. linear codes, or a single model for the squares arranged in a checkerboard pattern of QR Codes, which are a type of two-dimensional barcode (and there are various types with different encodings).