Skip to Content
Alumni profile

David Collins, SM ’59

Making his mark on the world with bar codes.
October 20, 2015

Bar codes are a hallmark of modernity, found on groceries, parcels, machine components, tickets, and billions of other items. You can thank David Collins for developing their first successful application and advancing them through an entrepreneurial career that’s still under way.

In the mid-1950s, while studying civil engineering as an undergraduate at Villanova University, Collins took a summer job with the Pennsylvania Railroad. He had a “grand adventure” rebuilding a bridge in five days after a wreck, but he also noticed that the railroad’s punch-card system for daily tracking of rolling stock was prone to errors. “It led to a lot of chaos,” he recalls.

Collins went on to the Sloan School, where he says he cultivated an “outsized self-assurance working within the scientific business community that has (mostly) served me well ever since.” He also took lessons at the Sailing Pavilion, which led to a lifelong romance with ocean racing and voyaging—and benefited MIT when he donated a 43-foot racing sloop to the Institute in 2011.

At GTE Sylvania after graduation, Collins convinced his managers to let him develop what became the KarTrack Automatic Car Identification System, which tagged railcars with colored lines read by photomultiplier vacuum tubes. Early installations led to its selection as a national standard for railcars, vans, and freight containers in 1967. Sylvania didn’t want to pursue broader applications, so the next year Collins founded Computer Identics to develop laser-scanned, black-and-white bar codes, which found instant interest in the auto industry, retail, and other sectors.

“It was fascinating how the technology got taken up,” he says. “In 1977, the New York City Marathon contacted us about collecting finishing times with bar codes. I thought it was crazy, but it showed how bar codes could simplify a process with a lot of room for error. That’s what I enjoy most—simplifying complex processes.”

Collins’s current business venture, Data Capture Institute, was founded in 1987 to focus on integrating bar codes into advanced information technology—a pursuit of “interesting things that don’t conflict with sailing,” he jokes. One major success: a Federal Aviation Administration program for uniquely identifying components of the air traffic control system, which the Department of Defense has adopted in recent years to track aircraft parts. He also serves as chair of A2B Tracking, founded by his sons Pete and Tim—next-generation bar-code entrepreneurs.

Collins and his wife, Joan, live in Duxbury, Massachusetts, where they enjoy sailing their boat Next Dimension and often host their eight children and 12 grandchildren.

“A big family is fun in a very special way,” he says.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

light and shadow on floor
light and shadow on floor

How Facebook and Google fund global misinformation

The tech giants are paying millions of dollars to the operators of clickbait pages, bankrolling the deterioration of information ecosystems around the world.

illustration of Psyche spacecraft
illustration of Psyche spacecraft

NASA wants to use the sun to power future deep space missions

Solar energy can make space travel more fuel-efficient. 

egasus' fortune after macron hack
egasus' fortune after macron hack

NSO was about to sell hacking tools to France. Now it’s in crisis.

French officials were close to buying controversial surveillance tool Pegasus from NSO earlier this year. Now the US has sanctioned the Israeli company, and insiders say it’s on the ropes.

wet market selling fish
wet market selling fish

This scientist now believes covid started in Wuhan’s wet market. Here’s why.

How a veteran virologist found fresh evidence to back up the theory that covid jumped from animals to humans in a notorious Chinese market—rather than emerged from a lab leak.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.