What Is a Barcode?

A barcode is an image consisting of a series of parallel black and white lines that, when scanned, relays information about a product. Barcodes are read by special optical scanners. Once the scanner device is placed across the barcode, it immediately processes the data contained within it, typically the price of the product that the barcode is printed on.

The most common form of a barcode is the Universal Product Code (UPC), which was first introduced in the 1970s for use in grocery stores.

How a Barcode Works 

Barcodes are an essential part of the economy. They are a routine part of commercial transactions, appearing on pretty much every product available to buy in a store.

The idea behind barcodes is quite simple. Each different item has a unique number printed on it that a scanning device can read and identify. This makes it possible to automate the transfer of product information, such as its price, from the product to an electronic system such as a cash register.

Barcodes can be read by different kinds of technology. Scanners are specially programmed for transferring the data housed by the barcode to the application program, providing instant access to a wealth of information. An interface scanner connected to a computer transmits the barcode's information as if it was inputted on a keyboard. 

Key Takeaways

  • A barcode is an image consisting of a series of parallel black and white lines that, when scanned, relays information about a product.
  • These black and white images are read by optical scanners, which are present in many forms of modern-day technology, including smartphones and tablets.
  • Barcodes serve many purposes, helping companies to boost efficiency, reduce and reduce their overheads.
  • The most common form of a barcode is the Universal Product Code (UPC), which was first introduced in the 1970s for use in grocery stores.

Benefits of Barcodes

Barcodes do much more than just provide a price and other basic details about a product. They help to save time, eliminate the possibility of human error, and generally make companies more efficient.

When they are linked to a database, barcodes allow retailers to track inventory, enabling them to easily monitor trends in consumer habits, order more stock, and adjust prices. Barcodes can also be used in other applications such as the healthcare industry, where they are used to identify patients and patient records. They can also help disseminate further important information such as medical and prescription drug histories and allergies.

Plenty of other industries also take advantage of barcodes. The technology is known to boost efficiency across many different industries, including the postal service, travel, and tourism (rental cars, luggage), and entertainment (movie and theater tickets, amusement parks).

History of Barcodes

The barcode was invented by Norman Woodland and Bernard Silver in 1952 and patented in that same year. The two men first dabbled with ultraviolet ink, only to discover that the ink faded and was too expensive to keep replacing.

Woodland was later inspired by Morse code and drew his first barcode, consisting of a series of dots and dashes, in the sand on the beach. He then adapted technology to devise a reader. 

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) was one of the first to use the barcode, implementing it in the 1960s to identify railroad cars automatically. The plan involved using a series of colored stripes on steel plates, which were mounted to the sides of the cars.

Two plates were put on each car (one on each side), with the stripes identifying different information, such as the type of equipment and the owners. A scanner was used to read the plates on the moving cars. Although it proved somewhat useful, the system was abandoned because it was unreliable for any long-term use.