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Reading Tools

Reading Tools

Systems for recognizing printed text and images originated in the late 1950s and have been in widespread use on desktop computers since the early 1990s. Examples of such reading tools include bar code technology, optical character recognition, optical mark readers, and "smart card" technology.

Bar Code Technology

A bar code is a printed series of black parallel bars or lines of varying width on a white background that is used for entering data into a computer system. The bars represent the binary digits 0 and 1, sequences of which, in turn, can represent numbers from 0 to 9. The numbers presented by a bar code are also printed out at its base. Bar code information is read by an optical scanner such as a handheld "wand" or a bar code pen that is moved across the code or vice versa. The computer then stores or immediately processes the data in the bar code.

History of the Bar Code.

As a graduate student at Drexel Institute of Technology, Bernard Silver overheard the president of a local food chain asking one of the deans to develop a system that would automatically read product information during checkout. The problem intrigued Silver so much that he and another Drexel student, Joseph Woodland, invented the "bull's eye" symbol, the prototype of the bar code, which was patented on October 7, 1952.

Bar code technology was first used commercially in 1966. Soon afterward, consumers and industry leaders realized that bar code standardization was needed. Thus, by 1970, Logicon, Inc. introduced the Universal Grocery Products Identification Code (UGPIC). The first company to produce bar code equipment for the retail sector using UGPIC was Monarch Marking, and for the industrial sector, Plessey Telecommunications. In 1973 UGPIC gave way to the Universal Product Code (UPC), which has been used in the United States ever since. The first UPC scanner (made by National Cash Register Co., now NCR Corp.) was installed at a Marsh's supermarket in Troy, Ohio, in June 1974. The first product to bear a bar code was a pack of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit chewing gum, which is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

Uses of Bar Codes.

In retail, bar codes are used to obtain price information and other data about goods at the point of purchase by customers. At ski resorts, tags with codes are affixed to skiers' jackets and scanned as people enter ski lifts in order to monitor patterns of slope use. In industry, bar codes are used to track products as they are manufactured, distributed, stored, sold, and serviced.

Optical Character Recognition (OCR)

Optical character recognition is the method for the machine-reading of type-set, type, and hand-printed letters, numbers, and symbols using an optical scanner and optical character software. The light reflected by a printed text or image is recorded as patterns of light and dark areas by photoelectric cells in the scanner. A computer program then analyzes the patterns and identifies the characters they represent. OCR is also used to produce text files from computer files that contain images of alphanumeric characters such as those produced by fax transmissions.

History of OCR.

Engineering attempts at automated recognition of printed characters began before World War II. However, it was not until the early 1950s that a commercial venture justified funding for research and development of such technology. The American Bankers Association and the financial services industry challenged major equipment manufacturers to develop a "common language" to process checks automatically. Although the banking industry eventually favored Magnetic Ink Character Recognition (MICR)a branch of character recognition involving the sensing of characters containing magnetic particles to determine the character's most probable identitysome vendors had proposed the use of OCR technology.

Uses of OCR.

Any standard form or document with repetitive variable data is suitable for OCRfor example, credit card sales drafts and invoices. Perhaps the most innovative use of OCR can be found in the Kurzwell scanners that read for the blind by scanning pages and converting the text into spoken words.

Optical Mark Reader (OMR)

An Optical Mark Reader (OMR) unit scans for either the presence or absence of a mark in a particular location on a page, as specified by the user. The technology is also known as "mark sense," and it is familiar to students and teachers at all levels because it is widely used for standardized and classroom testing purposes.

OMR technology was pioneered in the United States and was first used for student assessments in the 1950s. Its introduction was related to advances in behavioral and child psychology as well as to the development of tests designed to measure various aspects of human performance. Since that time, OMR has become commonplace throughout the American education system. Although OMR has a variety of administrative applications, its major use is to score multiple-choice tests such as the SAT and GRE. Other uses include the recording of responses for surveys and questionnaires.

Smart Card Technology

Unlike the magnetic swipe card (a plastic card with a magnetic strip containing encoded data), a smart card is a plastic card containing a chip that holds a microprocessor and data storage unit. Such cards have standardized electrical contacts for drawing power and for communicating with external devices.

History of Smart Cards.

The first smart card-related research began in 1968 when Jürgen Dethloff and Helmut Grötrupp patented their idea of using plastic cards as a carrier for microchips. In 1973 Roland Marino developed and patented the first smart card. The first commercial field trial did not occur until 1981 when a banking chip card was tested in several French cities. In 1984 France Télécom introduced the first phone chip card. This led to widespread use in that country, followed by adoption in Germany, where patients have health records stored on such cards. In the United States, field trials were conducted for identification cards, and a pilot for an electronic purse (a.k.a. "stored value cards") took place in Atlanta, Georgia, in conjunction with the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Uses of Smart Cards.

Smart card technology is used in a variety of applications, including building access systems, electronic payment schemes, and public transportation. Smart cards are also used to provide conditional access for satellite television users, and to store and retrieve information about customers and their purchases through grocery or retail "loyalty" cards.

see also Input Devices; Optical Character Recognition; Video Devices.

Joyce H-S Li


Nelson, Benjamin. Punched Cards to Bar Codes. Petersborough, NH: Helmers, 1997.

Rankl, Wolfgang, and Wolfgang Effing. Smart Card Handbook, 2nd ed., trans. Kenneth Cox. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000.

Schantz, Herbert F. The History of OCR, Optical Character Recognition. Manchester Center, VT: Recognition Technologies Users Association, 1982.

Internet Resources

History of Bar Codes. LASCO Fittings, Inc. web site. <>

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