What is a barcode?

Barcode Explained

A barcode is a square or rectangular image consisting of a series of parallel black lines and white spaces of varying widths that can be read by a scanner. Barcodes are applied to products as a means of quick identification. They are used in retail stores as part of the purchase process, in warehouses to track inventory, and on invoices to assist in accounting, among many other uses.

Two Kinds of Barcodes

There are two general types of barcodes: 1-dimensional (1D) and 2-dimensional (2D).

1D barcodes are a series of lines used to store text information, such as product type, size, and color. They appear in the top part of universal product codes (UPCs) used on product packaging, to help track packages through the U.S. Postal Service, as well as in ISBN numbers on the back of books.

2D barcodes are more complex and can include more information than just text, such as the price, quantity, and even an image. For that reason, linear barcode scanners can’t read them, though smartphones and other image scanners will.

There are more than a dozen barcode variations, however, depending on the application.

Barcode History

The concept for the barcode was developed by Norman Joseph Woodland, who drew a series of lines in the sand to represent Morse code, and Bernard Silver. A patent was granted in 1966 and NCR became the first company to develop a commercial scanner to read barcode symbology. A pack of Wrigley’s gum was the first item ever scanned, at Marsh’s supermarket in Troy, Ohio, NCR’s hometown.

Business Benefits

Barcodes were developed to improve the speed of sales transactions, but there are other potential benefits to businesses, including: 

  • Better accuracy - Relying on a barcode to process data is far more accurate than relying on manually-entered data, which is prone to errors.
  • Data is immediately available - Because of the processing speed, information about inventory levels or sales is available in real time.
  • Reduced training requirements - Thanks to the simplicity of the barcode scanner, employees need little in the way of training in how to use it. Additionally, thanks to barcodes, there is much less for employees to have to learn and retain.
  • Improved inventory control - Being able to scan and track inventory yields a much more accurate count, as well as a better calculation of inventory turn. Companies can hold less inventory when they know how soon they will need it.
  • Low cost implementation - Generating barcodes is quick and easy, as is installing a barcode system. Potential savings can be realized almost immediately.


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