Happy 40th birthday to the barcode

Forty years ago today, a cashier at a Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio, scanned a 10-pack of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum bearing an odd-looking set of alternating black and white lines. The barcode had been designed by IBM engineer George Laurer to help grocery stores track each piece of merchandise sold. With that first scan, the Uniform Product Code was born.

At the time, the brass at IBM weren't thrilled that the first UPC code was scanned using a machine made by rival NCR (NCR), known then as National Cash Register. The store using Big Blue's machines was set to go online in less than a week, according to Bill Selmeier, a former IBM colleague of Lauer's who now oversees the online ID History Museum, which is dedicated to UPC technology.

The roots of the technology, however, go back decades before that auspicious day. In the 1940s, a grocery executive approached the Engineering College at Drexel University in Philadelphia to develop an automated product identification system for use at checkout.

"The University did not accept the challenge, but a graduate student, Bernard Silver, overheard the request and related it to his friend Joe Woodland," the ID History Museum notes on its website. "Together they decided to take on the challenge."

Silver and Woodland developed a system using bulls-eyes that few people used for decades. Grocery checkers continued to input numerical codes by hand. By the 1960s, grocery stores began to become more interested in automation and in 1971 IBM asked Laurer to design an optical code for the grocery business that could be used by other industries. He also created a symbol to accompany the barcode as well and helped develop the scanning equipment. Laurer's work received the blessing of a grocery industry group two years later.

Laurer's barcode wasn't an easy sell at first. Grocery manufacturers had to be convinced to spend the extra money to print the UPC code on their products. What won them over, however, was the realization that the savings achieved by grocery stores would be passed on to consumers, Selmeier said.

"It took maybe four or five years for it spread through the entire grocery industry," he said

By the way, the Juicy Fruit sold on that fateful day as well as one of the first scanners are in The Smithsonian National Museum of American History near Alexander Graham Bell's phone.

Laurer, who couldn't be reached for comment, is a member of the Innovation Hall of Fame and holds 25 patents. He still does UPC consulting. For decades he has had to refute speculation that the codes contain references to 666, which some see as a symbol of Satan.

" I didn't get the meat," Laurer joked last year to the New York Times. "But I did get the nuts."

About 2 billion barcodes are now read every day around the world.

The technology that Lauer created continues to evolve -- 2D barcodes, also known as a Quick Response or QR Code are becoming increasingly popular. They are able store up to 7.089 characters on one symbol. Radio Frequency Identification, RFID, also is becoming increasingly common.

  • Jonathan Berr

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