Barcodes and How a Pack of Gum Changed the World

Barcodes have been around for longer than you might think. The idea was first patented in the 1950s although their first commercial application – routing railway wagons – didn’t happen until 1967. It was only in the mid-1970s that the barcode started to appear in what is perhaps its best known environment the supermarket checkout. If you collect useless information you may like to know that the first product to be bought using a barcode was a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum in 1974. The gum and the till receipt are now on display in an American museum.


Since then the march of the barcode has been unstoppable and they’ve become a ubiquitous feature such that pretty much every product that you come across now has a barcode on its packaging. Because each code is unique it provides a perfect way of identifying an item. No need for individual pricing or punching in information at point of sale both of which have scope for operator error. Simply scan the code and a computer or cash register can retrieve the product details and current price instantly from a database. This has several advantages, instant checks on stock levels, easy price updates and consistency across different point of sale terminals or sites. It also means that new products can be introduced quickly just by adding their codes to the system.

There are benefits to the consumer too. Most smartphones can read barcodes with an appropriate app, making it easy to check prices or to add bulky items to your online shop as you go around the supermarket.

Although we see barcodes most often in a retail environment, of course the technology isn’t restricted to shopping. Barcodes can be used to track and select stock in warehouses, route parcels, verify attendance and do much more besides. And whether you need to scan existing codes or generate and print your own the technology is widely available and generally affordable, which means whatever business you’re in you’ll find equipment and software to suit.

Scanning and Printing Barcodes

So, what do you need to get started? For reading codes you need a scanner. The simplest are the hand held types that connect to your computer or till via a USB port, a keyboard connector or a serial cable. Both corded and cordless types are available offering maximum flexibility in use. A fixed scanner, the type most often used in supermarkets, is usually more expensive but offers easier scanning because it can be used hands free and is less sensitive to the angle at which items are presented. Again interfaces are available to suit most types of host.

If you need to print barcodes then it’s possible to do so on a standard laser or inkjet printer. However, there are various specialist printers available that can print barcode labels ready for immediate use. You can choose from compact desktop printers for occasional requirements or heavy-duty industrial printers for high speed, high volume use. You’ll need some software on your PC in order to generate codes but this too is widely available. The other piece of kit you may need here is a verifier. This is similar to a scanner but it reads the code and measures the quality of the printing to ensure that it’s up to scratch so you won’t encounter problems further down the line.

Whatever industry you’re in, if you rely on barcodes for the smooth running of your business then it pays to have the right equipment for the job. There are many types of scanner for example so ensure you understand the specifications and select the correct one for your application – do you need to scan large items that can’t be moved past a fixed scanner say. Do your homework beforehand and you’ll be sure to end up with a solution that’s right for your needs.

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