In 1948 Bernard Silver (1924–63), a graduate student at Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia, overheard the president of a local food chain asking one of the deans to research a system to automatically read product information during checkout. Silver told his friend Norman Joseph Woodland (1921-) about the request, and they started working on a variety of systems. Their first working system used ultraviolet ink, but this proved to fade and was fairly expensive.
Convinced that the system was workable with further development, Woodland quit his position at Drexel, moved into his father's apartment in Florida, and continued working on the system. His next inspiration came from Morse code, and he formed his first barcode from sand on the beach when "I just extended the dots and dashes downwards and made narrow lines and wide lines out of them."To read them, he adapted technology from optical soundtracks in movies, using a 500-watt light bulb shining through the paper onto an RCA935 photomultiplier tube (from a movie projector) on the far side. He later decided that the system would work better if it were printed as a circle instead of a line, allowing it to be scanned in any direction.
On 20 October 1949 Woodland and Silver filed a patent application for "Classifying Apparatus and Method", in which they described both the linear and bullseye printing patterns, as well as the mechanical and electronic systems needed to read the code. The patent was issued on 7 October 1952 as US Patent 2,612,994. In 1951, Woodland moved to IBM and continually tried to interest IBM in developing the system. The company eventually commissioned a report on the idea, which concluded that it was both feasible and interesting, but that processing the resulting information would require equipment that was some time off in the future.
In 1952 Philco purchased their patent, and then sold it to RCA the same year. In 1963 Silver died in a car accident.
Collins at Sylvania
During his time as an undergraduate, David Collins worked at the Pennsylvania Railroad and became aware of the need to automatically identify train cars. Immediately after receiving his master's degree from MIT in 1959, he started work at Sylvania and began addressing the problem. He developed a system using blue and yellow reflective stripes attached to the side of the cars, encoding a six-digit company identifier and a four-digit car number. Light reflected off the stripes was fed into one of two photomultipliers, filtered for blue or yellow.
The Boston and Maine Railroad tested the system on their gravel cars in 1961. The tests continued until 1967, when the Association of American Railroads (AAR) selected it as a standard across the entire North American fleet. The installations began on October 10, 1967. However, the economic downturn and rash of bankruptcies in the industry in the early 1970s greatly slowed the rollout, and it wasn't until 1974 that 95% of the fleet was labeled. To add to its woes, the system was found to be easily fooled by dirt in certain applications, and the accuracy was greatly affected. The AAR abandoned the system in the late 1970s, and it was not until the mid-1980s that they introduced a similar system, this time based on radio tags.
The railway project had proven to be a bust, but a toll bridge in New Jersey requested that a similar system be developed so that it could quickly scan for cars that had paid for a monthly pass. Then the U.S. Post Office requested the development of a system to keep track of the trucks entering and leaving their facilities. These applications required special retroreflective labels. Finally, Kal Kan asked the Sylvania team to develop a simpler (and cheaper) version which they could put on cases of pet food for inventory control. This, in turn, led to the grocery industry's interest.
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