35 years and 95 bits of binary code later

bar codes, creative resolutions, inventions and patents, tracking systems, UPC, Wrigley's Juicy Fruit chewing gum

That funny-looking thing made up of vertical black bars and printed on nearly every mass-produced product turned 35 years old in June. That’s right, the bar code has just celebrated a major milestone.

Designers of the bar code had one simple objective: to speed up the grocery checkout line and to provide a new tool for supermarkets to track their stock. Initially, bar codes did only that. But they have evolved into an extremely useful tool. Bar codes serve as ticket entry for entertainment and sports venues, and many modes of transportation. They are used to track packages as well as blood samples. Even cattle are branded with it.

Bar codes are considered an eyesore by designers who must work with them. In turn, designers have gotten inventive with the mandatory icon, and they have cleverly integrated the symbol into the overall visual branding of the product.

Check out some highly creative uses of the bar code:

bar codes, creative resolutions, inventions and patents, tracking systems, UPC, Wrigley's Juicy Fruit chewing gum

Clockwise from top left: The singer, Pink, displaying her bar code-tattoed neck,copyright unknown; Coke-bottle bar code on a can of Coke, uploaded by  Disco Suicide; bar code mannequin store display, uploaded by drspam; and bar code on Puma boot packaging, uploaded by look-aa. For more images, go to Box Vox.
Below: Variations on a theme: Barcode Revolution creates uniquely-themed bar codes for licensing or purchase.

bar codes, creative resolutions, inventions and patents, tracking systems, UPC, Wrigley's Juicy Fruit chewing gum

And now for some bar code trivia:

  • The history of the bar code began in 1932. Customers could purchase products by selecting punch cards of desired merchandise from a catalogue. A cashier put them through a reader, then the customer received the products and inventory was updated.
  • In 1948, grad students Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland began working on a system to automatically read product information during checkout. On October 07, 1952, they received a US patent for their invention. Their code was made up of concentric circles.
  • In 1969, Logicon, Inc. began work on a universal bar code, UGPIC. In 1973, UGPIC evolved into what is now known as the Universal Product Code (UPC), invented by George Laurer. UPC is the name of the familiar format that uses 30 black lines and 29 white lines to convey 95 bits of data in binary code.
  • On June 26, 1974, the first item scanned was a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum at Marsh’s supermarket in Troy, Ohio. That item can now be found at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

Happy 35th birthday, bar code! Thanks for streamlining our lives.

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