Barcodes forgotten cousin – Kimball Tags

Google is making a big deal about the 30th birthday of the barcode, and although there are many misconceptions about the purpose of those bands of black and white lines, their purpose is generally well known.

However, even a good stint of Google searches didn’t return much in the way of information about the competition to the barcode, its less well known cousin the Kimball Tag.

A terrible scan of an old Kimball Tag
A terrible scan of an old Kimball Tag

Kimball Tags were small cardboard tags found primarily on clothing, which were both printed with human readable information and also marked by a special pattern of holes for computer processing.  Traditionally these tags would be collected at the point-of-sale and then sent off in batches to be processed at the end of the business day.  The tags were used as an input method for identifying the product sold.

Obviously this system had some distinct limitations.  The batch processing of tags made real-time business analysis difficult, and required specific handling and processing facilities to be maintained. The nature of the hanging cardboard tag made it unsuitable for using in damp environments and didn’t fit well on sealed packages, so its adoption really was limited to the clothing industry.

Regardless of these limitations, while Google may be saluting the all conquoring barcode we should take a moment to remember the Kimball Tag, the betamax of the retail industry.

Now why do I care about this humble stock control technology?  Well, way back in the mists of the 1970s my father developed the first computer system that incorporated the Kimball Tag reader and the computer into a single terminal.  The system was developed on 8 inch floppy disks, and if the barcode had not arrived when it did then the world, and my life, may have been very different!


9 thoughts on “Barcodes forgotten cousin – Kimball Tags

  1. Francis O'Brien

    Hello there, I happen to have a Kimball Co. Tag marking machine that I picked up about 22 years ago at a garage sale. Only recently have I started researching information about it and the Kimball company on West Broadway in New York. I read an Obituary in the New York times for Alonzo Kimball who died in Dec 1 1916. I believe he is probably the ‘A’
    in the A.Kimball company, but I’m not sure. There’s not a lot of information on the web regarding the company, but I managed to find a lot of patents associated with it on Google Patent!


    Francis O’Brien

  2. Steve Shepherd

    I worked in a data processing facility in 1969/1970 that processed Kimball Tags. The processing machine was an English Electric Leo Mk III. Not exactly a stand-alone terminal, because it filled a very large room! The tags may have been read offline, of course and transferred onto tapes, I really don’t know.

  3. Ralph Land

    The major application of Kimball Tags was run on a Leo 111 at Hartree House for Richard Shops. After initial difficulties in making the then sophisticated management information system run on a nightly basis the system bedded down and ran virtually unchnged for just over 10 years

    Ralph Land (Ex Leo Computers and ICL)

  4. Emily

    Meanwhile in fashion… The name caught on, the spelling was forgotten (along with the origin) and those irritating little plastic things that spike through your clothes were colloquially renamed “kimble tags”.

  5. George Scliffet

    And HOW did the tags get punched, and read?

    Back in late 60’s I worked for A. Kimball in Boston, setting up and servicing those machines. We were trained in Orange New Jersey. The tag punch machine took rolls of pre-printed card stock and printed, and punched distinctive holes in them which provided product numbers, prices, sizes, etc. A binary code(0-1-2-4-7) was used so that two holes, in various positions provided the numbers 1-10. As a check two pins (holes) were required to make a number so as to prevent a broken punch pin from being acceptable. Many department stores (Jordan Marsh, Filene’s, etc) had multiple machines. Shoe manufacturers and other retail products also used them.

    The tags were spindled at the point of sale, and sent to a central reader station where another machine read the punched code, and fed the information into a IBM card punch, which was then read and the data and entered it into a computer, who then sent the data to a printer, and the reports were used to reorder merchandise, show sales and size trends, etc The data from three tags were captured on a single IBM card.

    The Kimball machines were leased to the customer, electro-mechanical devices that were quite ingenious. A.Kimball became a division of Litton Industries. and of course was replaced by bar codes which provided faster data capture.
    by George…

  6. Cynthia Cawley

    I have a Kimball tag still on a beaded cover-up to be worn over a gown. It is not perforated not does it have a barcode…style of clothing is probably from the 20’s or 30’s. Does anyone have earlier information?

  7. Kimball tags are always punched card, the holes are essential for the machine reading aspect of their garment tracking function. Sears tested a pilot system in 1952. Prior to that a a wide variety of garment tag styles existed, if you have a photograph of yours it may be possible to identify more of its history.

  8. Mike

    In the early Seventies, I operated a Dennison machine that read these tags at a Chicago company. The machine was not connected to the IBM 360/30 computer, and I don’t remember where the data in the tags went after they were read. I’m guessing punched cards.

    As a side note, in 1990-1991 I was an American expat in Munich. It was an experience, as you say.

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