Even for those of us with gray hair it’s hard to remember what it was like before everything around us was labeled with a barcode. Today barcode scanners impact nearly every aspect of our daily lives. From the clothes we wear to the food we eat, items are tagged and scanned and scanned again before they reach the grocery shelf or the rack at your favorite designer store. If you hadn’t really thought about the importance of barcodes and barcode scanners just take a look around the room or open the pantry in your kitchen. If it’s a book it has a barcode, if it’s a can or a package it has a barcode. Your TV, your computer, probably even your newspaper is labeled with a number and a code.
Prior to the advent of barcode scanners all product tracking was done by hand. Inventory was taken by counting items one by one and determining where a package you shipped was along the route it traveled to get to your door was next to impossible. Somehow we did manage but things were slower, orders less accurate, and products were more difficult to obtain.
Barcode scanners actually began to appear as early as the 1970s. When they were introduced they were quite costly and not entirely accurate. Personal computer technology had not become available and only large mainframe computing was available. By the 1980s, however, the computer world had begun to change and barcode scanners became much more popular. Today this technology is just about everywhere we go.
Barcode scanners are relatively simple as far as technology goes. There are three key parts. One is a light source for illumination, the second is the sensor or converter and the third is the decoder. A red light is used to bounce light off of the barcode. The black absorbs the light so the sensor recognizes the change in color. The actual bars are sized very precisely and together they create a record of the manufacturer and the item. The light sends a message to the sensor which converts the signal from analog to digital. The digital signal is then sent to the decoder which sends the information to a computer where it is uploaded into a database. All of this action takes place in a split second.
Actual barcode scanners range in sophistication from the most basic, a single light pen stylus that is dragged across the code to powerful lasers that can quickly and accurately process data from surprisingly long distances. Of course the most sophisticated systems will be found in warehouses and other situations where a great many items are processes every day.
When you really think about it 40 years is not a very long time for a technology to take hold the way barcode scanning has. You would be hard pressed to think of an area of your day-to-day life where the technology is not applied. From the books you read to the food you eat the barcode scanner has done its job. While there are technologies out there like RFID that are trying to claim some of the barcode market, it is unlikely that we will see this wide reaching technology go anywhere in the near future.