The Barcode’s Journey: How Technology and Innovation Shaped Its Development

2023 marks the 50th anniversary of a technology that is used 10 to 20 billion times a day. One that we hardly ever think of or even notice. Nearly as ubiquitous as electric lights or air conditioning, this quiet, unobtrusive invention is so common that for most of us it simply disappears into the background. But without it, most businesses would grind to a very messy halt.

To recognize the half century mark of this seemingly low-key invention Paul V. McEnroe has authored The Barcode: How a Team Created One of the World’s Most Ubiquitous Technologies. 

The barcode was first introduced 50 years ago, when we first saw a checkout person not key in a price but rather slide a package across a mysterious red light and saw the price tally on a display, we were stunned. How did that work?! Well, McEnroe was the group director at IBM where he led the team that refined this technology. 

Now, think about it: it’s virtually impossible to get through a day without interacting with a barcode. Anything we buy contains one, yet we don’t see it. It’s become invisible, part of the landscape. When it comes to  impact on modern life, its contribution to both global economic prosperity and quality of daily life, few inventions equal the barcode. Our supermarkets swell with abundance, our manufacturing lines run smoothly, and the world’s supply chains–via rail, truck, ship and plane–work because they are guided by barcodes, by the tens of billions daily. If those little strips of black and white bars were to all disappear, the world’s economy would grind to a halt. It is not hyperbole to suggest the barcode is as crucial to the modern world as electricity and telecommunications. 

There are countless stories about the origins of AC power, the telephone, the PC and the internet. The barcode is the most under-told story in all of indispensable technology. In The Barcode, McEnroe details how IBM (aka Big Blue), the predominant tech giant of its time, fostered a tiny group of fearless engineers to form a tiny and courageous design team whose endless frustrations of creating something new and world-changing, the conflicting claims of authorship, failure and success, honor and heartbreak.

Part of why this book is exceptionally readable is the contrast between the seemingly impossible electronic and mechanical challenges that the design guys overcame versus the super-sized market acceptance issues that the business and marketing pros—“the suits”—dealt with. The real surprise is how beneficent Big Blue was in curating this world-changing technology. To the outside world, IBM always seemed monolithic, deadly serious, and relentlessly competitive—and never more so than in the Mad Men era of this book: a place of dark suits, white shirts, skinny ties, “Think” posters, and preformatted tablets for taking notes. What McEnroe provides is one of the most illuminating looks ever at the human side of IBM, the friendships and feuds, the unmatched commitment to leading the electronics revolution.  

In reading The Barcode you’ll understand why IBM became one of the most innovative companies in history. At a time when most companies spent more on lawyers to write patents to defend their intellectual property than on engineers to create it, IBM wisely chose to put the barcode technology out in the world without licensing or royalties, and see it spread. They calculated—correctly—that the scanned barcodes would drive unprecedented demand  for computation power and data storage. It’s hard to imagine how McEnroe’s team and the barcode could have succeeded anywhere else.

The bottom line is that The Barcode: How a Team Created One of the World’s Most Ubiquitous Technologies is worth reading. It’s an honest page turner that will help you appreciate what a devoted team created that serves us all today.