The barcode – one of the 50 things that made the modern economy

The BBC World Service programme about the barcode, explains how it has transformed the world – starting with the simple process of speeding up check-outs in stores

A recent programme on the BBC World Service included the barcode as one of the 50 things that made the modern economy. In the programme, Tim Harford explains the story of the barcode – from its invention in 1948 on a beach in Florida, when Norman Joseph Woodland drew the world’s first barcode in the sand, to 1974 when the first live barcode was scanned in the US on a pack of Wrigley’s gum at a Marsh supermarket in Ohio, to today’s world where the barcode still plays a key role in streamlining retail, foodservice, healthcare, online marketplaces and many other sectors.

Take healthcare for example. Just a few weeks ago the Department of Health’s Scan4Safety project, enabling staff to quickly and easily track each patient through their hospital journey, was recognised by Sky News for its early results. Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt said: “Scan4Safety is a world first in healthcare – and a vital part of this government's drive to make the NHS the safest and most transparent healthcare system in the world. Using simple barcodes that major industries rely on every day will help to transform standards of care – before, during and after patients have treatment, at the same time as freeing up resources for care by reducing waste."

The barcode isn’t just a way to do business more efficiently, it also changed what kind of business can be efficient.”

Tim Harford, BBC

This is a story that’s testimony to the remarkable innovations that can happen when industry leaders work together. It changed retail 40 years ago. It’s changing healthcare now. And thanks to new technologies and applications, the impact of the barcode – and GS1 standards – will continue to be felt in more ways and sectors.

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