Such a pronouncement caused me to do a little research. That’s natural for a guy like me. I research every geeky thing that anyone can think up, including how to barcode a pig, and now the birth of the barcode itself. As it would happen, I’ve had quite a history of my own with my little barcode buddy. More on that later.
So, how did this all get started? The first barcode had no bars to speak of. It was round, like a target with concentric circles. Joseph and Bernard, students at Drexel Institute of Technology (now University), came up with the printed “target” code sometime during 1948 or ‘49. Their invention was in response to overhearing a local grocery chain owner who wanted to read data rapidly and accurately at checkout. The development of the code itself was a fairly straight-forward process, but the technology to read it was an entirely different matter. A patent was issued to Joe and Bernie on October 7, 1952 for the code and a rudimentary reader type thing. But, alas, many good ideas have to wait their turn in the success checkout line. The grocer shelved the project because actual barcode scanners were still a decade or so in the future. But, what we did get out of the proposition was a barcode birth date to celebrate. October the 7th. The bar (circle) code was patented 58 ¾ years ago this week.
Barcode technology may have gone on hold for a while, but the need to read data fast and accurately did not. The railroad industry was the next to try. This time it was a couple of guys from GTE Sylvania, David and Chris, who took on the challenge of determining the owner and serial number of a moving train car. Development went on from 1959 to 1962 on a system they called KarTrak. The code was made up of reflective tape in yellow and blue strips. Xenon light was reflected off the tape and the width and color of each bar was measured, analyzed, decoded and stored. Within five years, every train car in North America was mandated to have the code affixed. (It actually took until 1974 to label 95% of the fleet of U.S. railroad cars.) As groundbreaking and significant as the technology was, it still had two problems: The reader unit was too hard to maintain, and the Carbon Unit was too hard to train. So, KarTrak was derailed, at least for the time being. But, David at Sylvania was not done yet. This was the 60s. Superman and Lost in Space were playing on Sylvania televisions all over America. What this struggling technology needed was some Sci-Fi. It needed a laser beam, and it got one. David, impatient with big company bureaucracy, left Sylvania and formed his own company to solve the world’s data collection problems. A helium-neon laser was pointed at the moving code on the train cars, which helped solve one of the problems. But, now with an actual laser beam in the picture, other industries began to pay attention. The automotive industry was huge in post-war America. GM and Ford and Nash and Rambler were pumping new cars into the economy as fast as they could make them. David added an oscillating mirror to scan the laser beam back and forth, which made the system more reliable and able to read a damaged barcode label. With these new enhancements, he took the idea to General Motors. In a Flint, MI GM plant, engines, transmissions and axles were labeled with a barcode and read by a scanning laser. The GM assembly lines that automatically identified these parts and collected data using barcodes were much more accurate than the ones with the old-fashioned Carbon Unit data collectors. Barcodes proliferated in the automotive industry and many others, like toll bridges, US Postal trucks and product distribution centers.
“Now wait a minute,” you say, “what about the grocery store and Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit and all that?”
Be patient. We’re almost there.
The National Association of Food Chains – NAFC met to discuss how to automate their checkout systems. There simply had to be a faster and more accurate way to take a customer’s money. The only option known to anyone was the circular code invented by Joe and Bernie back in the 40s. The Kroger chain agreed to give it a whirl. That was 1966. By mid 1970, it still had very few actual users. So, the NAFC held another meeting and set a committee to work on creating a uniform barcode for the grocery industry. They proposed the problem to IBM, Litton, NCR, Pitney-Bowes, RCA and Singer (mainframes, microwaves, cash registers, postage machines, TVs and sewing machines). They carefully considered concentric circles, starburst patterns and finally a linear version with parallel vertical lines. IBM was named the winner in development of the Universal Product Code in April, 1973. On the UPC team at IBM was Joseph Woodland of Joe and Bernie fame.*
IBM began meeting with grocery manufacturers to convince them to include the new printed code on everything they made. They predicted, for the system to be cost effective, 70% of all products in a store would have to be labeled with the UPC barcode. Unbelievably, without (excessive) industry association pressure, government mandate, or even federal tax incentives, the grocery industry began to comply en masse.
National Cash Register of Dayton, OH, was the dominant player in point-of-sale technologies at the time. They implemented a barcode system at Marsh’s Supermarket in nearby Troy, OH. At 8:01 AM EST on June 26, 1974, Sharon, a checkout clerk, scanned a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum – retail 67₵. This momentous swipe was the first commercial use of the UPC barcode. Today, the gum and the receipt are displayed in the Smithsonian.
Happy Birthday, Mr. UPC. 37 and counting. Still just a youngster.
At this writing, I have an App on my mobile phone that allows me to “scan” and decode a UPC, identify the product, compare features and prices from several vendors, and even buy it online and track the progress of its delivery to my front door. I can also read the new multi-color two-dimensional code printed alongside the venerable UPC and watch a streaming video of a comely model demonstrate the many features of the product.
ScanSource began with a question in 1992. Did the barcode industry need a distributor? Never underestimate the value of being in the right place at the right time. Our founder asked me, a computer geek… “Greg”, he said, “What do you know about barcodes?” “A lot,” I said. “Barcodes are easy. I know everything you need me to know.” I lied. I just wanted to be a part of whatever he was doing. That day, I went to the county library and used the card catalog and the Dewey Decimal System to look up BARCODE and BAR CODE in books printed on paper. That’s when my research for this blog post really began.
We started ScanSource on December 7, 1992. 18 ½ years old and counting.
* Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver (1924-1963) were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame on May 4, 2011. The UPC has become the world’s most pervasive inventory tracking tool. It has transformed the way consumers shop and how businesses and retailers manage inventory.Learn more about this topic at scansource.com >