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Read Between the Lines

Rhona Lewis

If you’re like me, you’ve glanced at barcodes millions of times and wondered, Is this for show or does it really mean something? Learn to crack the code and find out what’s behind all those strange lines and numbers!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

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Photo: Shutterstock

What’s black and white and lined all over? No, it’s not a zebra. It’s not a zebra crossing either. It’s a barcode. If you’re like me, you’ve glanced at barcodes millions of times and wondered, Is this for show or does it really mean something? Barcodes aren’t called barcodes for nothing. Those black bars are in fact… code.

What is a Barcode?

Look carefully… can you see numbers and lines? Notice that the lines vary in thickness. Here’s why: Every digit from zero to nine is made up of a rectangle of space divided into seven bars. The bars are arranged in a different pattern of black and white stripes for each digit.

Number one, for example, has two white stripes, two black stripes, two white stripes, and one black stripe. Number two has two white stripes, one black stripe, two white stripes and two black stripes. Get the idea? The numbers, lines, and their thickness are all code… a machine-readable code that identifies a product.

Fun fact: Some people can actually read barcodes without a scanner. You just need to know how each digit is represented.

Today, not all barcodes are a set of one-dimensional bars. Bar codes come in different shapes and sizes. Yes… that dizzy black-and-white square made up of rectangles, dots, and hexagons is also a barcode. In fact, it’s a two-dimensional barcode — a QR code.

Who Uses Barcodes?

Barcodes are used by businesses to track products, prices, and stock levels. This helps a business become more efficient because fast-selling items can be identified quickly and automatically reordered, while slow-selling items can be identified and not reordered so there isn’t a buildup of stock.

Barcodes are used in hospitals to identify patients, give over data such as medical history and drug allergies, and keep track of which medications and treatment they are receiving.

Barcodes are used to track objects like rental cars and airline luggage. Don’t pull off that tag on your suitcase!

Barcodes are used on tickets to allow the holder to enter sports arenas, theaters, and fairgrounds.

Barcodes are used to track mail and shipments.

Fun Fact

The first shipping service to use a system to track packages was FedEx. FedEx was the first company able to provide real-time updates on where your package was located, and help you find lost packages. Most other carrier services now also provide this service. Barcodes are Born


In 1949, mechanical engineer Norman Joseph Woodland was looking for a way for grocery store owners to keep track of the products in their stores by recording product information at checkout.

At first he thought of using ultraviolet ink, but the ink faded too fast. One day, while he was sitting on the beach, he drew a set of parallel lines in the sand — kinda like the dots and dashes of Morse code. Three years later, in 1952, he had a patent — along with another problem… there was no way to scan the barcode. Whoops!

For the next 22 years almost nothing happened with barcode technology. During the late 1960s, the Association of American Railroads tried to use a barcode system called KarTrak, combinations of colored stripes on steel plates on the sides of railcars. The barcodes contained information such as ownership, type of equipment, and identification number. But the system didn’t last long.

During the early 1970s, IBM employee George Laurer was hard at work. Finally, on June 26, 1974, the first barcode (for a ten-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum) was scanned in a supermarket in Troy, Ohio. Today barcodes are used to track everything from gum to top-secret assets in the Department of Defense.

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