Tasteful Inventions: Bars & Stripes: They Have My Vote

Monday, October 20, 2008

Bars & Stripes: They Have My Vote

Like most, you probably never gave much thought to the Technology of the Bar Code. I mean really, why would you? I certainly hadn't, until, last week. It isn't like they aren't everywhere. Indeed they are. Don't believe me? Make a beeline over to the fridge and grab some milk. Hey, while you're at it, pour yourself a glass. Mmmm...good huh? Carefully put the milk back where you found it and take notice to the mysteriously coded label attached to the container. Yes, its those numerically coded bars, which are darker, and stripes, which are lighter. Just like this one.

This portion of the bar coded Presidential Election cup was purchased at a local 7-11 convenience store here in New York and given to me as a gift. Actually, I had two, one of each. I'm not a 7-11 type person although, I'm not real sure as to what a 7-11 type person is. Frankly, I don't buy anything in 7-11 and that's the reason why someone gave me the cups. Anyway, my first instinct was to say thank you and pretend to admire them. "Cool," I said. As I was twisting one around, I noticed the blue arrow with the words above it which read, This is How We Count Your Vote! It seems, whether your pouring for Obama or pouring for McCain, 7-11 has your number. The convenience store has been doing this for the past three elections by keeping track of which cup out sells the other. For some, the 7-11 coffee cup poll is the only one they trust. How does it work? Simple, they tally the bar codes.

In some form or another, bar codes or more "officially" called Universal Product Codes have been around since the 1890 U.S. Census. Granted, they weren't as sophisticated as they are now but the theory was pretty much the same beginning with punched cards. The daunting task of "How do we keep track of something that is forever on the move?" began with a thesis written by Wallace Flint who envisioned a way of automating the grocery checkout process. I guess it makes sense. The most noticeable to me is the lack of inventory sales retail stores once had from season to season. Everything in the store went on sale. Then the store would close for at least two days and inventories were laboriously conducted. In very basic terms, the department stores then had a fairly good idea of which products were selling and which needed to be ordered. Wallace Flint's idea proved to be too costly in the 1930's but, he is credited with the laying the foundation for the barcode through his detailed thesis and drawings. He also played a supportive role in the initial use of the Uniform Product Code (UPC) as vice-president of the National Association of Food chains some 40 years later.

In 1932 an ambitious project was conducted by a small group of students headed by Wallace Flint, son of a Massachusetts grocery wholesaler, at the Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration. Wallace Flint wrote a master's thesis in which he envisioned a supermarket where customers would perforate cards to mark their selections; the punched cards were then handed to a checker who placed the cards into a reader. The system then pulled the merchandise automatically from the storeroom and delivered it to the checkout counter. A complete customer bill was produced and inventory records were updated. source

The "Bullseye Code"

Perhaps, Bernard Silver, of Philadelphia PA was listening under the eaves of a partially opened window at Philadelphia's Drexel Institute of Technology when he over heard a conversation between a local grocery store manager and one of the deans at the school. It seems the grocery store manager was seeking a more convenient way of logging information about his customers purchases. Now, we all know eaves dropping is impolite. Actually, it is quite rude to listen to someone else's conversation. Perhaps even ruder was when Silver decided to "dish the dirt" to his friend Norman Joseph Woodland, a twenty-seven-year-old graduate student and teacher at Drexel Institute of Technology. Both young men were intrigued by the request of the grocery store manager. Woodland ran with the idea. Really, he did. He hightailed it to a nice quiet beach front community in Florida and got to work.

His first idea was to use patterns of ink that would glow under ultraviolet light, and the two men built a device to test the concept. It worked, but they encountered problems ranging from ink instability to printing costs. Nonetheless, Woodland was convinced he had a workable idea. He took some stock market earnings, quit Drexel, and moved to his grandfather's Florida apartment to seek solutions. After several months of work he came up with the linear bar code, using elements from two established technologies: movie soundtracks and Morse code. source

Problem solving is often a motivating source of inspiration. Communication is still another. Morse code is a combination of them both. So what is Morse Code and how does it relate to Universal Product Coding? According to wikipedia, Morse Code is a method for transmitting information, using standardized sequences of short and long marks or pulses, dots, dashes and spaces. Dots, dashes and spaces are arranged in such a way to represent letters, numbers and even punctuation marks.

These codes have an alphabet made up of dots and dashes in various combinations which stand for individual letters. The Morse Code is so widely used that it does not qualify as a "secret" language, but it can be very mystifying to one who does not know it. It has a definite advantage over the Semaphore Code in that it can be sent in many ways--by whistle, buzzer, tapping, flags, or even by using the clenched and open hand during daylight hours. By night, lights of any kind can be used. source

Morse Code is not considered a secret language for the same reason that shorthand, ASCII code (American Standard Code for Information Interchange:) and bar coding are not. All of these methods of character coding are universally standardized and easily available to anyone who chooses to learn and use them. Scouts have their own form of secret messaging. Then we have the Pigpen Cipher and the code breaker. All forms of encryption. Sound familiar?

On October 20, 1949, fifty nine years ago to the day, "gossip monger" Bernard Silver of Philadelphia PA and Norman Joseph Woodland of Ventnor, NJ filed an application patent for a Classifying Apparatus and Method." An invention which "related to the art of article classification." You can see their patent #2,612, 994 and diagram at the google patent website. Here is the introduction to their invention:

This invention relates to the art of article classification and has particular relation to classification through the medium of identifying patterns. It is an object of the invention to provide automatic apparatus for classifying things according to photo-response to lines and/or colors which constitute classification instructions and which have been attached to, imprinted upon or caused to represent the things being classified.

On October 7, 1952, Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver were granted their patent. The "Bullseye Code" patent was Bernie and Norm's solution to an inventory tracking system. It was a "series of concentric circles that were scannable from all directions, using regular light." You can learn more about the History of Bar Coding at the Barcoding Inc. website which shares some insight from the inventor himself Norman Joseph Woodland.

Understanding Bar Codes may seem a bit confusing at first. But, once you get the hang of it, you too can learn to decipher the hidden message on the Presidential Election cup. Below, are a few "rules."

"A Universal Product Code (UPC), also called a bar code, is a product description code designed to be read by a computerized scanner or cash register. It consists of 11 numbers in groups of "0"s (dark strips) and "l"s (white strips). A thin bar consists of only one strip; thicker bars consist of two or more strips side by side. The first number in the code describes the type of product. Most products begin with a "0"—exceptions are variable weight products such as meat and vegetables ("2"), health-care products ("3"), bulk-discounted goods ("4"), and coupons ("5")-Since it might be misread as a bar, the number 1 is not used. The next five numbers describe the product's manufacturer. The five numbers after that describe the product itself, telling its color, weight, size, and other distinguishing characteristics. source

Breaking the Code

We have barely touched upon the long history of the bar code. It would not be until June 26, 1974 that the first bar code item would slip through the register at the local grocery store in Troy Ohio. It seems kind of ironic that the first item to be scanned by the $10,000.00 unit would be a pack of Wrigley's chewing gum. Sticky fingers, secret codes, what's next Human bar-coding? UPC codes are everywhere now. Sometimes in the most obvious places and sometimes hidden. Sure we may now be aware of the bar codes found on grocery items, library books, sale items, and even pieces of luggage. You may be surprised to discover some of the less obvious uses. Rental cars have hidden bar codes attached to their bumpers. Honey bees have had teeny tiny bar codes attached to their wings to spy on their mating habits. I've left a few links for you to explore more about bar codes and their uses below. Have FUN breaking the 7-11 code.


  • 1. Bar Code History
  • 2. U.P.C. Uses (you may be surprised to discover other uses for barcode technology)
  • 3. Morse Code and Phonetic Alphabets (make up your own)
  • 4. Alphabet to Morse Conversion (try your luck:)
  • 5. Bar Code Controversy