Barcode, how it changes after 50 years

Barcode, how it changes after 50 years


The barcode turns 50. The ubiquitous label made up of vertical bars of different thicknesses became an operating 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 experienced a real epic, which has not yet it's over. 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 succeeded in patenting 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 scanners with integrated circuits that made this technology possible and the creation of the first consortia of companies to create the single standard.

The story:

A historical package of gums The future of the barcode is a link The greatest invention

A historic packet of gums

The aim of the barcode is to speed up the detection procedure at the supermarket checkout (the confirmation "beep" of reading) which associates the reference number previously registered in the shop till with the number. But the barcode is obviously not only the optical technology for detecting the bars (which were initially arranged in the shape of an oval and only later reorganized for straight) as much as the language behind it.

The coding of the information contained in the 13 numbers makes it possible to identify the headquarters of the manufacturing company (80 stands for "Italy", for example), the subsequent numbers the manufacturing company, then the single reference and finally a The last digit serves as a check that the sequence is correct.

To arrive at the reading of the barcode or UPC (Universal Product Code), used for the first time in an Ohio supermarket where a package was purchased of chewing gum (now preserved in the Smithsonian museum), there was a need before the work of non-profit associations. The UPC in the United States and the Aen (European Article Numbering Association) in the Old Continent, then became GS1 with its main office in Brussels and, since 1978, also with an office in Italy.

" GS1's work - he explains Marco Cuppini, research and communication director of GS1 Italy - is on many fronts. GS1 is responsible for assigning the codes to the producers who join, which are more than two million in the world, and who will then pass in front of the tills. In Italy it happens 30 .2 billion times a year for a total of approximately 350,000 products generating 2.7 billion receipts GS1 also carries out searches for its associates, receives product samples to record them and insert all information, including photos, into a database. This information is critical for the sustainability and future life of the products" .

The future of the barcode is a link

The barcode market is as vibrant as the underlying world of mass retail products is . 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, says Cuppini: "It will be necessary to transfer the information digitally". But how to do it?


Alfred Gescheidt/Getty Images The BBC has put the barcode among the “ 50 things that have made the economy global ”, that is, they have forever changed the way we shop. But the barcode will continue to do so in the future as well, linking a physical product to digital information with the "digital link", the next version of the barcode which will be mandatory starting from 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 considerable - says Cuppini -  because it allows you to do many things. Identify the lot to which a individual product, its expiration date or other details, as well as linking to a web page showing the nutritional values ​​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 time of expiry approaches, as well as offering extra security in recognizing at the checkout if a product has escaped the controls and has expired ".

The codes bars are not only those used by large retailers in 116 countries. The morphological standards of barcodes, i.e. the way in which characters are encoded for optical reading, is the equivalent of an alphabet. 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).

The greatest invention

Then there is the actual language, that is, the grammar and syntax with which written information is codified. The GS1 dialect is used in large-scale distribution, which has food, household and health products. But then there are the codes used by logistics, for shippers, those of books (ISBN codes) and those of magazines, the codes used by giants such as Amazon to identify all their products, and so on in dozens of other sectors.

Tiny barcodes can be found on the cases of branded watches or on the chips of computer and tablet boards, but also on disposable razors and on train engine components or in containers and cargo ships transport, not to mention the baggage loaded at airports i of all the 2.3 million pieces that make up the components of a modern airliner such as the Boeing 787 .

Coding with optical reading is one of the most great inventions of our time, which allows anything to circulate by automating its recognition and reading. And it all started from the experiments of two American engineering students (although there were already previous experiences made in various parts of the world) who created a standard for large-scale distribution. It all started with the purchase of a pack of chewing gum and a "beep" that marked the beginning of a new era. Just today.

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