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The Wolfram|Alpha Team

What Does That Barcode Say?

October 9, 2009 —
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Happy Birthday, barcode!

The barcode’s 57th birthday is being celebrated this week all around the web. People really took notice of this event. And why wouldn’t they? From books to food to clothing, barcodes have found their place on just about every manufactured item we consume.

The system was invented by Norman J. Woodland and Bernard Silver, and was later honed by David Collins, as a way to track and catalog items. The barcode is an optical binary encoding system that was designed to be fault tolerant so that it can be scanned from a variety of distances and angles. It’s also designed so that the directionality is never ambiguous, and most barcodes have some kind of check digits or characters to improve accuracy (in Wolfram|Alpha, click “Show details” to see the encoded form and the check characters). First applied as a way to identify railroad cars, barcodes came into wide use after the laser and the computer were more developed.

Wolfram|Alpha can convert text to five different kinds of barcodes: the Universal Product Code (UPC-A), the International Standard Book Number (both ISBN-10 and ISBN-13), Code 128, Code 93, and Code 39. From packing away boxes in storage to labeling banana bread for a bake sale, you can use this Wolfram|Alpha feature to create your own cataloging and labeling system.

Barcode encoding options in Wolfram|Alpha

To create a barcode in Wolfram|Alpha, simply enter the code type followed by the specifications you would like to encode, such as “code 93 third grade art projects”.

So just what does that bar code above say? Click on it to find out.


Every time I think that I’ve played all of Wolfram Alpha’s most exciting features, you make another blog post that brings me right back to the site. Well done.

Posted by Andrew Breza October 9, 2009 at 4:17 pm

Unless I’m missing something, Wolfram Alpha won’t *read* barcode; it only writes it. If this is the case, then the question posed, “What Does That Barcode Say?”, remains unanswered, except in your one example. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

Posted by Aaron Z Snyder October 9, 2009 at 4:42 pm

I’d love it if it could also perform the reverse computation on graphical input – what if I could copy the URL of the image above and put that in the input field to get the original text string?


Now that would be pretty impressive. Add (limited) computation on graphical input to my W|A wish list.

Posted by Andrew October 10, 2009 at 5:53 am

Thanks for useful advices. Stay tuned!

Posted by Aritaborian October 10, 2009 at 1:49 pm

The Forum is very inactive with few posts being made. It is 36 hours since the last. I suggest Wolfram publicise the Community Forum more. Perhaps by a ” HELP from other users’ button on the ‘Windows Live’ page pointing people to the Forum.

Posted by Brian Gilbert October 11, 2009 at 4:22 am

How can I get barcode images in higher resolution? E.g., I want to put it on shirt or poster.

Posted by Aritaborian October 11, 2009 at 7:41 am

I would enjoy seeing wolfram tap into Isync which allows anyone to find out what product a upc code is attached. Unfortunately no one makes this information readily available to the public. In theory, if you know the upc code, you can get the name of the product, description, weight, and many other important properties of the product. Unfortunately the databases accessible to the public have a very limited number of UPC codes. But Walmart insisted that everyone of their suppliers join and supply Isync with the UPC codes and related properties of the products. But now Isync requires thousands of dollars to join their system which is way too high for individuals looking for upc code product descriptions.

Posted by Marc October 11, 2009 at 12:36 pm

EAN-13 barcodes also work.

Posted by Timofei October 19, 2009 at 3:16 pm

This is a very nice idea… It reminds me of that old advertisement:

But what is about the qr-code? Btw.: As far as i know, the qr-code is license free

Posted by Philipp October 21, 2009 at 9:05 am

WolframAlpha is already very famous for sharing precise information. Again we got a good article for barcodes. Keep it up!!

Posted by barcode generator October 22, 2009 at 5:41 am

It’s amazing! Barcodes are used almost everywhere! Even in mobile applications! Look, here is the link

Posted by Razor October 29, 2009 at 7:10 am

It’s true. Barcodes are almost on everything these days, regardless of your business. If you have products, they most likely have upc/barcodes. (If you sell physical products that is) And while I work for a barcode/label distrubitor, some of the most common questions I am asked by customers are “How can I make a barcode on my printer?” or “How can I create a registered barcode?” After a lengthy list of customers asking, I wrote an article on how to create a barcode in detail. Please read my article and feel free to leave me comments or suggestions – thank you. What is a UPC Code?

Posted by Tom November 3, 2009 at 2:39 pm