What is a Barcode?

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  • Written By: Carol Francois
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2019
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A barcode is a series of lines of varying thicknesses printed in a parallel sequence, with numeric code above or below the lines. Barcodes are printed onto paper or embedded into a product, and can only be read by a scanner or barcode reader.

A barcode reader emits a specific light frequency. When this light is directed at the barcode, a series of numeric values that are embedded in the code are displayed to the scanner, which then translates that input data into numbers and sends this information to the computer processor. Barcode software is used to translate the code into product information.

Any data linked to this code is located by the software. This information may include the product name, price, weight, manufacture, date created, issuer and receiver. Decreases in the price of computer memory and processors have increased the sophistication of the information available from a barcode.

The purpose of a barcode is to allow a computerized tracking system to quickly pick up the detailed information of the product through one key number or barcode. The amount of information that can be linked to the barcode is only limited by the software used. There are certain standards within the different industries for which information will be provided and the names of the fields.


This type of agreement increases the adoption rate of technology and improves the quality of the systems while maintaining a lower cost. Universal product code (UPC) is an example of this type of cooperation. Within the grocery store industry, the UPC was developed into a standard 11 digit code in the mid-1970s, in order to identity any product.

Wide acceptance of the project was slow. The high cost of locating scanners at every checkout and the need to move to centralized computer systems often outweighed the benefits. These systems are now used to properly track and maintain the relational database of cost, suppliers, inventory levels and sales activity, increasing efficiency.

There are at least 15 different types of barcode standards in place throughout a wide range of industries. Libraries, post offices, manufactures and ticket systems have all accepted the barcode as a reliable, cost effective method of tracking a product. Each industry has set up their own standard coding sequence.

New technology is expanding the amount of data that can be encoded in a barcode and now includes alpha numeric codes and symbols. The first barcode patent was issued in October 1949 to Norman Woodland and Bernard Silver for a classifying apparatus and method. This patent included printing patterns and the technology required to read the code.


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