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Monday, March 04, 2013 10:36 AM

So tell me, where would we be without barcodes these days? Can you even think of a place where they are not employed? Ever notice how frustrated check out clerks can get when the bar code can’t be read on the item you are purchasing. Does anyone even remember ten key adding machines? This was the cash register when I was a kid. No no, no I am not old enough to remember when you had a crank on the cash register so that the numbers popped up in the top of the machine. But I do remember going to the corner grocery and the clerk always had a pencil behind his ear – you know one of those flat pencils that got sharpened with a whittling knife. The brown paper (we didn’t have a choice of paper or plastic) bag the groceries were put in served as the writing tablet and each item was listed and totaled up the old fashioned way…. 8 +7 is 15, carry the one to the ten’s place….

This is supposed to be an article about postal history, right? Well, it is. The first patent for a bar code type product (US Patent #2,612,994) was issued to inventors Joseph Woddland, Jordin Johanson and Bernard Silver on Oct. 7, 1952. Primarily the need to design such a system came from the needs of your local grocer. With the multitude of products, there needed to be a better way to keep track of inventory. Although designed in the early 50’s it was several years before the barcode was fully operational. Most of us became aware of barcodes in all aspects of our daily life during the mid 1980s.

In 1963 the Post Office Department instituted the Zone Improvement Program – ZIP code and Mr. ZIP was born. The code was actually invented by Robert Aurand Moon in the 1940’s. A ZIP code is a structured number which helps to locate the address where an item is being mailed to. The entire US is divided into 10 zones, and the first digit of the ZIP code tells you which zone the mail is to be sent to. The next two digits specify the metropolitan area or regional center in that zone and the last two digits indicate the local post office or delivery area. This is what you and I knew as a five (5) digit zip.

Once addresses or areas were broken down to just a five digit number it was easy for the post office to begin automating its sorting practices. Bar coding of mail began in 1965. I remember the monstrous machines that first required 16 people to operate in order to sort mail. Then came the Optical Character Readers (OCRs). Only 3 or 4 people would run a similar sized machine and sort almost twice as much mail. It wasn’t a very fine sorting; not like that of today where the mail is actually sorted in delivery sequence (at 36,000 pieces per hour) so it can be placed directly into a delivery vehicle without requiring any further sortation. That five digit barcode has grown over the years to a twelve digit barcode.

There are numerous types of bar codes used in grocery stores, retail outlets, and medical operations, almost anywhere that records need to be kept. The postal service employs the PostNET barcode system - which stands for Postal Numerical Encoding Technique. I mentioned the twelve digit barcode…how did that happen? Once the five digit code was in place, in 1983 USPS added four more digits – your Zip +4. This furthered our ability to make a finer sort to decrease the amount of mail that had to be handled by employees. Now we added two more digits so that we can sequence the mail right down to the way the carrier delivers it. For example, on Main Street a carrier might start at 101 then 103, then 105 where he crosses the street and goes back down the even side, 106 then 104, then 102. Of course if the people at 104 Main Street happen to be on vacation and they notified the post office, that mail will be sorted to a tray just for mail placed on hold. This way the carrier doesn’t even have to handle it on the street and bring the mail back to the office.

So have you kept track—five digits + four digits + two digits, that makes 11 – so where did the 12th digit go? In order to have the sorting machines check their work and make sure that they didn’t misread a barcode, the twelfth digit is a check digit. If the machine has made an error, the check digit would end up being wrong as well and the letter would be rejected from the final sorting and placed in a tray for manual inspection. Next time I will teach you how to decode those funny little lines.

Thanks to all who helped make the Second Annual Gala Celebration a big success. More than 150 people purchased tickets to come to this event. The food was great! The wine was flowing! And some very deserving volunteers were recognized for their contributions. Mary Krohn won not only a wine basket but a trip to either Lake Tahoe or Palm Springs, Calif. It should be a great time when she is off from teaching school.

I keep running in to people who haven’t heard about our next trip to Alaska leaving on July 27 and returning on Aug. 5. This will be a trip of a lifetime with everything from the opportunity to go whitewater rafting, kayaking around Orca Island in the Gulf of Alaska, to airboat, dogsled, flightseeing rides up onto the glaciers and across the Kenai Peninsula and Fjords. As they say, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We have three seats left – that would make just 17 of us in our group and I bet you’ll know 90 percent of them. Your own personal guide, your schedule, your choices. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by – it will probably never come again.


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