The story of the barcode that changed our lives

The barcode originated on April 3, 1973 when managers of large American consumer goods companies agreed to use a single product identification standard: the GS1 barcode then called UPC. 

On June 26, 1974, at 8:01 AM in a store in Troy, Ohio, Mr Clyde Dawson bought a package of Wrigley juicy fruit chewing gum and paid 61 cents to cashier Sharon Buchanan, who had just scanned for the first time the barcode printed on the packet of chewing gum.

Thus began one of the greatest revolutions in the world of consumer goods, laying the first foundations for the expansion of the world market and allowing the adoption of a unique language without borders and without barriers.

The idea of the barcode was born on a beach, in the late 1940s. Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland, its creators, are urged by the manager of a supermarket to work on the idea of a code to mark products, which would allow automatic recognition at the checkout, and speed up queues and payments. 

The solution comes during a day at the beach: Woodland begins to draw points and horizontal lines on the beach, coming from Morse code and realizes that if he stretches those signs vertically with his fingers, the strokes originating from the points are transformed into narrower furrows which, alongside wider furrows originating from the lines, make that design a possible new code.

At first, he tries a design with concentric circles, which is considered more suitable for reading from different angles. Then it turns out that the linear system of bars is a winner, a set of graphic signs that can be read from multiple directions, without the identification of a product being tied to the position in which it is presented at the checkout.

More than five billion GS1 barcodes are read every day around the world. They are undoubtedly the best known and universally recognized sign of the GS1 standard system, used by two million companies around the world to speak a common language and communicate without barriers, beyond geographical and cultural boundaries and allows you to harness the power of information to improve people’s lives, and to: 

  • Automatically identify products, pallets and locations.
  • Exchange information without errors.
  • Manage the supply chain and all business processes more efficiently, even beyond mass consumption.

Imagine if there was no barcode,

said Miguel Lopera, President and CEO of GS1, a neutral, global not-for-profit organisation based in Brussels, Belgium with member organisations in more than 110 countries that oversees most of the barcodes used in the world today.

Can you imagine the lines at the checkouts? Can you imagine how frustrated consumers would be? Just imagine what it would be like one day at a hyper market, a supermarket, if one day the scanner didn’t work and checkout clerks had to manually punch in the barcode on every item. From a business perspective, imagine how the barcode enables a little manufacturer in India to sell his product any place in the world because the label can be read in any country in any language.