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.
- Washington Post – New Google logo celebrates the barcode
- BBC News – The rise of the barcode
- Wikipedia – Barcode
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.
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!