Of all the auto-ID technologies in the global market today, barcode is the most widely used. In 1994, Cohen (p. 55) wrote “...barcode technology is clearly at the forefront of automatic identification systems and is likely to stay there for a long time.” It is estimated by GS1, that there are over 5 billion barcode reads each day. Despite complementary and supplementary technologies entering the barcode space, Cohen’s statement still holds true. Palmer (p. 9) agreed in 1995, that “barcode ha[d] become the dominant automatic identification technology”. Ames (1990, p. G-1) defines the barcode as: “an automatic identification technology that encodes information into an array of adjacent varying width parallel rectangular bars and spaces.”
The technology’s popularity can be attributed to its application in retail, specifically in the identification and tracking of consumer goods. Before the barcode, only manual identification techniques existed. Handwritten labels or carbon-copied paper were attached or stuck to ‘things’ needing identification. In 1932 the first study on the automation of supermarket checkout counters was conducted by Wallace Flint. Subsequently in 1934 a patent was filed presenting barcode-type concepts (Palmer, 1995, p. 11) by Kermode and his colleagues. The patent described the use of four parallel lines as a means to identify different objects.
In 1959 a group of railroad research and development (R&D) managers (including GTE Applied Research Lab representatives) met in Boston to solve some of the rail industry’s freight problems. By 1962 Sylvania (along with GTE) had designed a system which was implemented in 1967 using color barcode technology (Collins & Whipple, 1994, p. 8). In 1968, concentrated efforts began to develop a standard for supermarket point-of-sale which culminated in the RCA developing a bull’s eye symbol to be operated in the Kroger store in Cincinnati in 1972 (Palmer, 1995, p. 12). Until then, barcodes in retail were only used for order picking at distribution centers (Collins & Whipple, 1994, p. 10). But it was not the bull’s eye barcode that would dominate but the Universal Product Code (UPC) standard. The first UPC barcode to cross the scanner was on a packet of Wrigley’s chewing gum at Marsh’s supermarket in Ohio in June 1974 (Brown, 1997, p. 5). Within two years the vast majority of retail items in the United States carried a UPC.