100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Product Bar Codes
Year of Invention: 1949

What Is It? A simple, machine-readable line code used to inventory and iden-
tify items or products.

Who Invented It? Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver (in Philadelphia)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Tracking and inventorying parts and products on stores shelve and in warehouses became a serious problem in the first half of the twentieth century. The problem hurt business, government, and every aspect of the economy.

Bar codes solved the problem and have saved billions of employee hours and company dollars. Virtually every part and product has a bar code used to track and inventory it. Bar codes have quickly become the one and only, universally accepted way to track sales, inventory, production, and product movement. Bar codes have changed the way manufacturing, transportation, and sales are organized and managed.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Periodic “inventories” meant that each item had to be physically counted by some person. Arriving shipments were often delayed days at the loading dock, waiting to be inventoried. Grocery stores had to close and bring in teams of clerks to count every item on every shelf. Countless millions of dollars’ worth of time and material were wasted each year because there was no easy way to track parts and products as they flowed through manufacturing, distribution, and retail centers.


How Were Bar Codes Invented?

In 1948 Bernard Silver was a graduate student at the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia. He overheard the president of a local grocery store chain pleading with the school’s dean to create a way to automatically record product information at the checkout. The dean said it couldn’t be done. But Silver and his friend and fellow grad student, Joseph Woodland, decided that they could do it and believed they’d make a fortune when they did.

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