Barcode

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The rare walkers in the 1948 off-season on a deserted Florida beach who could observe a short, agile person with glasses, with a very lively face, drawing something on the coastal sand, could not imagine that history was happening before their eyes.
But nevertheless, it was exactly so, for the young man was Norman Woodland, and what he drew in the sand, the world will someday know as a barcode.

The very idea of ​​creating a universal code in which information about a product would be encrypted was overheard by Woodland’s comrade, Bernard Silver, and he was overheard literally: he witnessed a conversation between his dean (Woodland and Silver were then in graduate school) with the director of a supermarket, who asked if they could whether scientists create a system that allows you to instantly register a purchase and keep track of goods.
The dean refused such a task, and Woodland and Silver literally caught fire with this idea: it seemed to them quite solvable, and its future was great.

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Supermarket in the USA, 60s Any merchant will say that the turnover rate is one of the most important factors for success in trade, and in retail, the turnover rate is influenced by the speed of ordering the completed order, the speed of displaying the goods and the speed of processing purchases

Indeed, the trade needed such a system like air – too many actions had to be performed by the sales staff to account for the goods.
Acceptance of goods, financial reporting, complaints, replenishment of stock, analysis of demand – all this was then done manually, hence the infinitely bloated staff of accounting and loaders, sellers and cashiers, constant reconciliation and rediscounting, which means an additional financial burden on the stores of that time.

However, barcodes came to our country quite recently, and people who found Soviet trade need not be told how retail worked without a barcode: only American commercially oriented retail could not afford, like Soviet trade, to periodically close for accounts and rediscounts.

Woodland and Silver, however, quickly became convinced that their dean was right: the task was not at all trivial.
But the task has already completely captured the young people. In 1948, Woodland interrupts his postgraduate studies, which prevents him from concentrating on the whole solution, and leaves for Miami, to his grandfather.
And there a decision really comes to him: he suddenly remembers how, in his Boy Scout days, he studied Morse code. The sand of the beach, on which he tries to depict dots and dashes, gives him the idea of ​​conveying content using lines of varying thickness.
The encoding had to be read somehow, and Woodland and Silver came up with a technology for transferring sound to cinema, invented two decades before them by Lou de Forest, which consisted in “translucent” of different intensities of color applied along the edge of the film.
Already in 1949, friends received a patent for their invention (their code looked like an “apple”, the stripes were arranged in a circle), and …

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One of the first designs by Woodland and Silver. The barcode is here in a circle, the authors saw a definite plus in this. The scanner that appeared later “changed” the arrangement of the strips

No, the world did not become instantly happier: at the design stage, already working at IBM, where they were invited as the authors of a promising idea that attracted the company’s management, the inventors faced the problem of reading the code, or rather, the problem of creating an adequate device.
Their first “scanner” was a table-sized device with a transparent lid and powerful lamps under the lid. The received signal was transmitted to an oscilloscope, which was supposed to record the result.
The first tests ended in fire: the lamps heated the lid, the paper started to smoke, but, nevertheless, the first result was obtained.
Alas, he did not satisfy either the inventors themselves or the trade.

A great idea, as it turned out, was somewhat ahead of its time: the problem of reading the code looked unsolvable, and even more so the problem of processing the information received was unsolvable. This task was entrusted to the computer, but computers of those years were extremely cumbersome and were just learning to solve problems more complicated than arithmetic operations.

It seemed that an end was put to the commercial implementation of the project, IBM officially closed the project, Woodland and Silver sold their patent to RCA for a modest $ 15,000.
RCA takes hold of the barcode idea and has been experimenting with it for many years trying to get the trade interested.
They were the first to guess to use a laser to scan the code: a thin helium-neon beam was perfect for code recognition.
The company also has its first, albeit modest, successes: they begin to use their code (albeit not without problems) for rail and sea transportation.
In the end, their activity is noticed: in the early 70s, the American Supermarket Union announced a competition for the best code.

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Norman Woodland, George Lorer and Bernard Silver, creators of the barcode

IBM is instantly “back in the game” – a challenge that seems extremely attractive to leverage the company’s potential.
A working group is being created under the leadership of an excellent engineer and an excellent leader, George Laurer. Together with mathematician David Savier, they begin to solve.
Here one of the veterans of IBM recalls two talented guys who dealt with this problem in the 50s.
Silver by that time is no longer alive, but Woodland has not lost his abilities, and he enthusiastically joins the work.

Lorer finds the “Achilles’ heel” of the concentric code, and suggests a linear one instead: this greatly simplifies the scanning process and dramatically improves its quality, the number of errors during reading is sharply reduced. However, it was decided to add a digital code, which would allow, in the event of a system failure, to enter the code manually, and added a “security code” at the end of the strip.
We can say that Lorer brilliantly polished the best ideas, introducing his own, and also combined all modern technical achievements in the final product.

As a result, it was the simple and elegant solution from IBM that the American trade liked, and April 3, 1973 is considered the birth of the UPC (Universal Product Code).
In 1974, the first sale of a scanned barcode product took place.
American retailers immediately offered their suppliers to apply barcodes to packaging, and manufacturers themselves soon appreciated the convenience of such labeling, which allowed them to clearly track the shipment and movement of goods.

Like everything, even the finest inventions, the barcode does not spread instantly: back in 1979, only 1% of American sellers use this technology, but already in the early 80s the number of users exceeded 90%, and by the middle of the same decade there are no more outlets in the USA that would not use barcoding.

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USA, mid-70s, scanning of purchases at the checkout. I must say, in those years, it is still a great exotic

IBM, of course, does not stop only at coding, offering a comprehensive solution that became the determining factor in the success of the idea: cash registers, materials and equipment for applying the code, a scanner (in the development of lasers, the company was one of the extremely prominent figures) and, of course, a computer and accounting software.
Supply and demand are moving towards each other: American retail noticed that investments in new technologies of the pioneers paid off in less than two years and “lined up” for the new technology, while scaling, in turn, greatly reduced the cost of retooling.

The need for standardization leads to the creation of a special body for the provision and classification of the barcode – UCC.

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The world’s first barcode product

They say (and why not tell!) That Lorer’s wife every time she came to the store, proudly said to cashiers and customers: “This is a barcode, my husband invented it!” She, it seems, was amused by the bewilderment of literally everyone to whom she spoke about it – they say, what, once there were times when the barcode did not exist?

Of course, there were such times, and maybe some of us will even be able to remember them: in the USSR, the first purchase of goods with a barcode took place in 1990, and the barcode itself became noticeable (but even then it was not universal. ) a phenomenon in our country only by the XXI century.

Currently, it has competitors: RFID, QR and somewhat less well-known formats.
But with all this, the positions of the barcode look unshakable: today, more than 6 billion barcodes are scanned in the world every day.

Alexander Ivanov, specially for the VDSina blog


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