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A Brief History of Barcode Scanning

Posted by Zebra EMEA

February 2, 2016 at 6:47 AM


In the first part of our three-part blog series on barcode scanning in the healthcare sector, we looked what benefits the technology can bring to the industry if a standardised system of barcodes is adopted. In this second part, we explore the origins of the barcode and how it came to revolutionise healthcare practice.

Today, you probably come into contact with our favourite little monochromic coding system on a daily basis – at the checkout, the airport, the hospital or when receiving a delivery – basically wherever a company has a lot of things, stock or people to manage and keep tabs on.

But have you ever thought about what life was like before barcodes? Routine tasks such as stock-takes in shops, for example, would have had to be done manually and by hand. Imagine if your local supermarket closed for a day or more each week to stock-take – not only a time consuming process and a pain for customers, but also likely to be rife with errors too!

Early attempts at barcode-like systems can be traced back to the 1930s, with punch cards and bull’s eye symbols seeing sporadic use. In the 1960s a multi-colour barcode system called KarTrak was trialled by the Association of American Railroads, but proved unreliable.

By the time of the rapid growth of the retail sector in the 1950s and 60s (and the rise of the supermarket in particular) there was clear requirement for a viable solution. As consumer demand increased, shops were desperate for a better way to manage and account for their stock and reduce the time customers spent at the checkout.

The barcode we’re most familiar with (and where Zebra gets its name) was first used in 1974 in the USA. The Universal Product Code (UPC), created by IBM, was selected by the National Association of Food Chains to be the new national standard in the USA and soon adopted elsewhere. Standardisation was partly in response to concerns by product manufacturers such as Kellogg’s and General Mills that shops would develop their own in-house methods and then request their barcode of choice be printed on all the stock they ordered.

A packet of Wrigley’s Chewing Gum made history when it became the first item purchased using this system, at a Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio (The scanner is now displayed in the Smithsonian Museum, but unfortunately the packet ended up on the rubbish heap.)

The UPC served as the standard for barcode technology for the remainder of the 20th century with only minor changes. Then, in 1994, the next major development in barcode technology took place when Toyota created the first Quick Response, 2D barcode to track their vehicles through the manufacturing process.

The past decade has seen barcode technology adopted in industries outside the retail sector: now airports track baggage, sports stadiums and music venues process tickets and hospitals track patients and medicine faster and with better accuracy than ever before.

The healthcare sector in particular has seen major uptake in the use of barcode technology during this period. Tracking patient information, medicines and other data through barcodes has resulted in more efficient treatments, a reduction in mistakes caused by human error and many more benefits across the industry as a whole.

But in much the same way as it was for the retail sector half a century ago, a lack of standardisation of this new technology is hindering progress and preventing the healthcare sector from reaping the full rewards of using barcode technology. The adoption of different coding systems and technologies has created a series of logistical headaches – such as medication requiring multiple labels – and increased the likelihood of human error. In some cases, separate departments of the same hospital are using completely different systems, further compounding the problem.

In an industry where mistakes could literally be a matter of life and death, it’s vital that a solution is found. This is why Zebra has conducted research into the current state of barcode use in the sector and continues to make a case for standardisation.

To find out more about the latest in barcode scanning technology for the healthcare sector and why standardisation is the most important next stage in its development, download our expert paper below: 


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Topics: Healthcare, Barcodes, EMEA