WHAT did we do before barcodes?

Perhaps our object of desire needed weighing or looking up in a book of prices.

It takes us back to an era where we did our shopping in individual shops, rather than supermarkets, and often had to discuss our order with the person serving. How awful.

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Now everything is pre-packaged complete with the symbol of modern commerce, the barcode.

I write in the wake of the recent death of Norman Joseph Woodland, co-inventor of the stripy, information-packed doodah. Previously, Norman had just mucked about on the US military's atomic Manhattan Project.

More important work awaited him. It was inspired after he and his co-inventor, Bernard Silver, heard of a grocer's plea for an invention that would quickly capture product information at the checkout.

Like all good former Boy Scouts, Mr Woodland knew Morse Code and, one day at the beach, while absently drawing dots and dashed in the sand, was inspired to change these to thick and thin bars. A patent was issued in 1952 but it was another 20-odd years before lasers made it possible to read the code and dae something useful with it.

Now it has become — to use a controversial but, in my view, legitimate word — iconic. Some citizens even have barcodes tattooed on their necks or other places of interest. The United Nations has designated these people "nutters".

You say: "One thing I'd really like to know is this: what was the first item scanned by barcode?" That is a fine question and the answer is this: a packet of Wrigley's chewing gum. The place: Troy, Ohio. The year: 1974.

For better or worse, barcodes ushered in the Age of Beep, in which our lives are lived to an accompaniment of little plinky noises. But they're worth it.