Barcodes and QR Codes: Life Made Easier

Barcodes and QR codes are showing up everywhere today, from airline boarding passes to hospital patient bracelets.
Marcia Wendorf
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We're so used to seeing them that we don't even notice them anymore, but there was a time before Universal Product Codes (UPC), or barcodes, were on everything.

A barcode is a visual, machine-readable representation of data that is created using different widths and spacings of parallel, vertical lines. Today, this type of barcode is referred to as one-dimensional (1D).

How the barcode got its start

The barcode was invented by two engineering graduates from Drexel University, Norman Woodland and Bernard Silver. In 1948, Silver overheard a supermarket executive ask Drexel's dean of engineering if product information could be captured automatically at checkout.


Silver partnered with his fellow Drexel graduate Woodland, who recalled Morse code from his Boy Scout days. The system they designed featured thin and thick lines arranged in a circular, or bullseye, pattern, and they patented it on October 7, 1951 as US Patent 2,612,994.

In 1951, Woodland was working for IBM, and he and Silver tried unsuccessfully to interest IBM in developing a barcode system. In 1952, Woodland and Silver sold their patent to the RCA Corporation, and it was that company who in 1969 got the National Association of Food Chains interested in the concept.

When IBM got wind of the project, they transferred Woodland to their North Carolina facility, and it was there that he developed the linear Universal Product Code, In 1974, the Uniform Code Council (UCC) was founded to administer the UPC standard.

The birth of GS1

In 1976, the 12-digit UPC code was expanded to 13 digits. This allowed the system to be used outside the U.S., and in 1977, the European Article Numbering Association (EAN) was created, headquartered in Brussels, Belgium. It went on to become GS1.

In 1990, GS1 standards were adopted for Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), and in 2018, the GS1 Web URI Structure Standard was adopted. This allows unique IDs to be added to products by storing a Uniform Resource Identifier within the QR code. Today, GS1 manages the standards for EAN/UPC codes, which are used on consumer goods, Data Matrix codes, which are used on healthcare products, and the QR Code.

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GS1's most important standard is for the Global Trade Item Number (GTIN), which is an identifier for trade items. The GTIN standard has incorporated the International Standard Book Number (ISBN), International Standard Serial Number (ISSN), International Standard Music Number (ISMN), International Article Number (which includes the European Article Number and Japanese Article Number), and some Universal Product Codes (UPCs).

GS1 barcodes
GS1 barcodes, Source: Diamondbybold/Wikimedia Commons

As shopping moved online, GS1 standards began to be used to uniquely identify products. eCommerce companies such as eBay, Amazon, and Google Shopping all require a GS1 number for products sold on their websites.

GS1 also administers barcodes that are used in healthcare for patient identification, to prevent medication errors and to detect counterfeit products. Barcodes are used to keep track of airline luggage, rental cars, and registered mail and parcels.

In 2005, barcodes began appearing on airline boarding passes, tickets for concert or sporting events, movie theater tickets, and product coupons. They are also increasingly used on work orders.

Barcode scanning

While still an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), David Collins worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad. There, he became aware of their need to identify railroad cars, and after receiving his master's degree in 1959, Collins went to work for GTE Sylvania, where he developed the KarTrak system.

This used red and blue reflective stripes affixed to the sides of railcars to encode a six-digit company identifier and a four-digit rail car number. In 1967, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) selected KarTrak as its standard across the entire North American fleet of railcars. However, the KarTrak system was easily confounded by dirt, and it was eventually abandoned.

David Collins went on to form his own company, Computer Identics Corporation, and one of the company's first innovations was the use of helium-neon lasers to read barcodes. In 1969 Computer Identics installed a scanning system at a Buick factory in Flint, Michigan, where it was used to differentiate among the dozen different types of transmissions that were moving along an overhead conveyor belt.

On June 26, 1974, a package of Juicy Fruit gum became the first product bearing a UPC code to ever be scanned in a grocery store. Today, that pack of gum is on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

Today, the built-in cameras on most smartphones can be used as barcode or QR code scanners, or code readers. As of iOS 11, Apple devices can decode QR codes, and Android devices can decode QR codes natively or with third-party apps.

QR code versus barcode

Two-dimensional (2D), or matrix barcodes, first appeared in Japan in 1994. The QR, or Quick Response code system, was invented that year by Masahiro Hara, an employee of the Japanese auto parts company Denso Wave, where it was used to track vehicles and components. QR is the trademark for a type of matrix barcode.

QR code
QR code, Source: Wikimedia Commons

A QR code consists of black squares on a white background, arranged in a grid. Data is extracted from patterns in the horizontal and vertical lines. QR codes use four encoding modes: numeric, alphanumeric, byte/binary, and kanji.

Today, QR codes can display text, add a contact to a user's mobile device, open a Uniform Resource Identifier (URI), connect to a wireless network, or open a text or an email message. QR codes are extensively used in advertising, they appear next to listings in the Yellow Pages, on signs and billboards, in magazines, on the sides of buses, and on business cards.

Some innovative uses of barcodes

In 2008, Japanese gravestone maker Ishi no Koe announced plans to include QR codes on gravestones. Taking a picture of the QR code would lead to photos, videos, and information about the deceased. Wisconsin-based Interactive Headstones has begun placing QR codes on tombstones, as has the Jewish Cemetery of La Paz in Uruguay.

QR codes have even been included on currency, with the Royal Dutch Mint adding a QR code to a coin in 2011. In 2014, the Central Bank of Nigeria issued a banknote containing a QR code, and in 2015, the Central Bank of the Russian Federation put one on its 100-ruble note to commemorate the annexation of Crimea.

Some companies have transformed their barcodes in very amusing ways that reflect their products:

Grass Vodka barcode
Grass Vodka, barcode Source: Hans Haase/Wikimedia Commons
Tall Horse Wines
Tall Horse Wines, Source: Pemba.mpimaji/Wikimedia Commons
Glas Hühner-Bouillon Pulver
Glas Hühner-Bouillon Pulver, Source: Hans Haase/Wikimedia Commons
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