The barcode turns 50: Who invented it and how has it changed the world?

The barcode has turned 50  (Pexels)
The barcode has turned 50 (Pexels)

A humble and unsung device that has quietly revolutionised shopping, the barcode has now been a part of retail life for 50 years.

As of Monday, the barcode has been on our packets and products for five decades and has been described by the BBC as “one of the 50 things that made the modern economy”.

The barcode is used 10 billion times each day, but just 7 per cent of Londoners say they have heard of the man who invented it.

Here is all you need to know.

Who invented the barcode?

Norman Joseph Woodland came up with the idea for the barcode on a Florida beach in 1948, but it took another five years for his project to materialise.

It went into business on April 3, 1973 and quickly became a necessity for companies and shops.

Mr Woodland was inspired to create the barcode from his Boy Scout training – where he learnt Morse Code. He drew dots and dashes on the beach and pulled them downward with his fingers to produce thin lines from the dots and thicker lines from the dashes.

What has the significance of the barcode been?

Research by barcode firm GS1 UK found that the barcode design that the industry settled on was a variation of Woodland’s, which then was developed by George Joseph Laurer.

This changed the course of global commerce forever and gave rise to GS1, the world’s only authorised provider of Global Trade Item Numbers (GTINs) – the unique number that powers each barcode.

The first beep

A year later, on June 26, 1974, in a supermarket in Ohio, a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum became the first product in the world to go beep at the till.

Five years later, in 1979, in true British tradition, a box of Melrose Tea Bags was the first product to be scanned in the UK at Keymarkets in Spalding.

To put its importance into perspective, the barcode is used 10 billion times worldwide on a daily basis, while Google is used for 8.5 billion searches a day.

Anne Godfrey, GS1 UK chief executive, said: “The invention of the barcode is one of the great, untold stories in the history of our modern world. Half a century ago, competitors came together, put aside their differences and made a decision that would transform global commerce forever.

“50 years on, we now have a plethora of on pack-symbols for consumers to contend with in order to get the information they need. Luckily, the barcode stands out in the crowd.”