The history and development of barcode scanners

With the use of a barcode and a dependable barcode scanning system, errors in data recollection have been effectively eradicated.

Johannesburg, 09 Jan 2020
Read time 4min 00sec

Before the creation of the scanner and barcodes, SA and its retail stores only had one method available to ascertain a correct assessment of what stock remained on the shelves and in the storeroom. This was to perform a manual tally of every single item in the shop. This method of inventory control proved to take up huge amounts of precious time, and was an expensive undertaking. Further, instead of taking thorough manual inventories, many shop managers would rather order new stock based on rudimentary estimates of what they needed on a superficial basis of what it looked like they needed; which, as you can imagine, resulted in a lot of overstocking.

As the retail world grew and shops had a greater demand to stock a greater variety and number of products in order to keep their customers placated, so the demand for the development of technology to help ease the process of inventory control increased too.

For a brief moment in history, shop owners considered implementing some sort of punch card method that the customers would use when purchasing items. This would help the shop keep a tally of what was being bought and thus, what needed to be re-ordered. However, this proved to be another time-consuming and inconvenient method of stock control and this method, in the end, wasn’t even prototyped. We all know by now that the barcode was then invented to solve this problem, and it revolutionised the retail world. Now shop owners could buy barcodes for each of their products to keep track of them throughout the supply chain! 

But not many people know the history behind the barcode scanner that was invented in order to make sense of a barcode and to make it be a functional invention at all. Let’s take a closer look at the history and development of the barcode scanner.

The barcode scanner was developed by David Collins, who not only had the idea to switch the barcode to a black and white line formation, but who also had the idea to use a laser beam as a source of light which could move over the code rapidly to read it. This is also how the "barcode scanner" got its name. Finally, in the late 1960s, two of these barcode scanning systems were installed: the first, in an automotive plant; and the second, in the General Trading Company's delivery centre in New Jersey, USA. At this stage, the barcodes could only hold two digits of information, but that was sufficient to allow important information to be collected.

With technology showing rapid growth in the late 1960s and early 1970s, transistors and laser mechanisms were becoming cheaper, and the processors needed to power computers were becoming far smaller in size. Because of this, retail giants were becoming more and more convinced that using barcode scanning systems at check-outs was to become a profitable market and an inevitable necessity.

Throughout the course of the 1970s, barcode scanning structures became less expensive and more practical (as they reduced in size) with the continuous price decrease and shrinking of microprocessors and lasers. The decision to buy a barcode was the easiest decision a shop owner could make! Armed with this new technology, many businesses began to develop their own barcode scanning apparatus and unique barcode symbology, and there were no generally accepted standards for barcodes separate from the retail industry. The Universal Product Code system highlighted the capability to normalise savings on labour and to increase data and information precision on an unprecedented scale, if standards for barcoding were adhered to.

Because the barcode scanning systems were so revolutionary, an innovative and standardised version of industry was born. The process of barcode standardisation is one of the most profound happenings in the history of logistics development. With the use of a barcode and a dependable barcode scanning system, errors in data recollection have been effectively eradicated. Accumulating and referencing the stored information with the use of an electronic, computerised database has transformed the way in which the gathering and reporting of information and data is thought about. Industry has come a long way with barcoding technology, and gone are the days when inventory had to be manually recorded and controlled based on the hunch of the shop manager.