The Ubiquitous Bar Code

by John Delach

My first moment of truth with the new reality that bar codes would determine my fate took place in Chicago outside U.S. Cellular Field, a.k.a. new Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox in July of 2004. Bill Christman, Mike Cruise, Don Markey and I found ourselves on the southside of the city on our way to the first game of that year’s annual baseball trip.

The White Sox were playing the Philadelphia Phillies in inter-league play that night. Usually, when planning our trip, I purchased our tickets in advance, but neither the Sox nor the Phillies fielded good teams that season, so I decide to buy our tickets at the gate.

As we left the CTA subway station we were engulfed by “Brothers” who ringed the subway exit scalping tickets. One fellow grabbed my attention by holding out four traditional tickets with the White Sox logo (as opposed to non-descript computer generated tickets). As I stopped, he said, “They’re on the club level behind the first base dugout.”

“What’s the face value?” I asked. I looked down to see $31.00 each.

“I’ll sell you them for $100.”

My initial reaction was that he wanted a premium on top of the $31face value only to realize that he only wanted $100 for all four. Quickly, I extracted two $50-dollar bills from my wallet and handed it to him in exchange for the tickets. Of course, I now worried that we had counterfeit tickets. As we approached the gate, I saw that each ticket had a bar code and the ticket-takers were scanning the code on each ticket. I had a sinking feeling, “This is a hell of a way to begin our trip.” I turned to my friends and said, “I got us into this, so I’ll go first.”

I looked down as the ticket agent scanner displayed, a green light as in: “GO!”

“Hot dog, we’re in.” giddy with laughter we headed for our seats happy to have secured discounted tickets. When we reached our seats, we realized how small the crowd was, less than 15,000 making the seller only too glad to cut his losses. Regardless, as it turned out, he sold us great seats at a discounted price. It was a hot humid night and the tickets gave us access to an air-conditioned dining area where we could eat in comfort while watching the game.

Today, bar codes and bar codes readers are everywhere. I can easily think of three encounters where they demonstrate their worth to us. Shopping for everyday items is our most prolific encounter. Every time we shop in a supermarket, pharmacy or any other store where we buy multiple items, either a clerk scans each item or we self-scan it at automatic check-out kiosks.

At the post office. When you mail a package, or buy something online, you receive a code that identifies your package from a tracking code. Earlier this spring, I bought a golf shirt featuring Miami of Ohio online from the college store. The store sent me a tracking number. After three weeks when my shirt didn’t show up, I took the code to my local Post Office. A clerk checked it out and said, it went to the wrong location but it’s on its way to you.” Sure enough, it arrived less than a week later.

Lastly, airlines. The bar code is a god-send for tracking checked luggage. Many a bag that was lost forever is quickly located and delivered. A far cry from the pre-bar code days.

I suspect at this point in my piece I’m on the verge of losing many of you. I understand so a warning; what follows is a short history of the origin of the bar code. To my departing readers I offer a hearty fair-well and no hard feelings.

Until the advent of containerization, the most important shipping container in the USA was the boxcar. In 1960, there were about 50 Class IA railroads in operation each having their own fleet of boxcars. Keeping track of them was a nightmare. A Northern Pacific boxcar could be loaded in Portland, Oregon make its way via four or five railroads to Mobile, Alabama where it could lose its identity.

The Southern Railway could requisition it to carry cargo to Rutland, Vermont. From there Canadian Pacific might send it to Quebec City where it could be loaded with goods destined for Erie, Pennsylvania.

The Association of American Railroads helped to develop the precursor of the bar code, called, KarTrak, a system of thirteen color labels that would be affixed to several metal plates mounted on several locations on every boxcar. Track-side readers would identify the car and send the information to the car’s parent railroad. Automatic Car Identification (ACI) was introduced in 1967.

Unfortunately, railroads were still in a struggle for survival in that era and many did not buy in. ACI was also crippled by bad weather and vandalism that prevented readers from picking up the code. Bottom line it was a failure and ACI was abandoned in 1977. By then, radio signals identified rolling stock and, today, electronically.

KarTrak was a failure but, like the ancient walkie-talkie sized cell phones day it was the granddaddy of today’s bar code just like those walkie-talkie phones were the granddaddy of today’s Android and iPhone