These days, US and International barcode consortium GS1 is celebrating the unification of member organisations that led to common standards for scanning and identifying merchantable goods - products. 40 years ago, on June 26th, 1974, a 10-pack of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit Gum was scanned at a Marsh food store in Troy, Ohio. Now, five billion GS1 barcodes are scanned every day, across 150 countries, 25 industries and 2 million companies worldwide. Quite a success story.
The original barcode rose to prominence through NASA, as the Space agency used it to keep track of components used to build their space-crafts. Roughly, barcode is numbers encoded in a black and white bar pattern, the stripes we all know so well. Invented by IBM engineer George J. Laurer. it was actually expanding on a more basic idea already invented around 1930 (via). The barcode has found numerous applications, as you can learn in this ad film with Sprague Ackley and bees. In retail, Laurer's code was first used to encode UPC (Universal Product Code) numbers, and when the system went global, the more European EAN (Electronic Article Number) was adopted as a superset of the UPC. Today, the EAN moniker is retired in favour of GTIN (Global Trade Item Number).
Many newer systems rival the old and trusted barcode, Near Field Communication, RFID, QR code and many other stripe codes are used in retail and elsewhere. And for a good reason! Even though product identification via photo may eventually arrive - what Google Goggles once claimed and Amazons Firefly is currently trying - is hard! Really hard. Identification from shape and colour very often is not enough or simply impossible. Something like showrooming, or even online price comparison, would just not exist without a common, unique identifier for products. The solution: unique id-number and a scheme to encode them machine-readable - one word: "Barcode". And when you look at the situation, look at how scanning apps on mobile phones, perform, in comparison with laser scanners: it's not yet there. Many unrecognized codes, deciphering blurry snaps of EAN codes - that's quite a challenge for mobile phones and often unsatisfactory - in other words: even with this old technology we are still catching up. So happy birthday, barcode!