(CNN) — Beep! The barcode, that rectangle of thick and thin parallel lines seen on seemingly every grocery product, package, prescription bottle and piece of luggage is turning 50 years old.
Since its invention, the Universal Product Code has become the most prevalent tracking tool for products around the world. Billions of items are scanned every day in industries from airlines to pharmacies to movie theaters. The laser-powered technology behind UPCs has changed the retail industry in particular, making big-box stores, easy returns, global inventories and (unpopular) self check-outs possible.
The barcode’s impact has been “revolutionary” said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData. It’s “more efficient and cost-effective” for retailers to use them and they offer “flexibility in terms of pricing. There’s hardly any products now that don’t use a barcode for identification.”
Who got there first?
Of course, like many great inventions, the barcode’s origin is disputed, its industry initially opposed it and the credit for its eventual success is claimed by many.
What isn’t in dispute is that in the prosperous post-World War II era, and amidst an explosion of new consumer products, Americans were getting sick of waiting in long lines at the checkout counter. A system to speed up the supermarket was in development as early as the 1940s.
Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland, two graduate students at Drexel University in Philadelphia, received a patent for an early barcode system in 1952; Woodland later said that the pattern was inspired by the Morse code he learned in the Boy Scouts.
But their prototype was shaped like a bull’s eye, with lines arranged in concentric circles, which sometimes proved difficult to read. It took a long time for laser-powered optical scanning to catch up and for barcodes to become a workable large-scale solution.
Canning companies hated it
Meanwhile, supermarket chains Kroger, Food Fair and UK-based Sainsbury’s (plus RCA and IBM) were also working on prototypes or projects, and they were facing resistance. Grocers initially opposed a universal system and canners hated both the idea, and the potential added expense, of having to stamp their products, the Smithsonian Magazine noted in a 2015 history of the barcode. The speed and convenience of the technology eventually won over opponents.
But the barcode wasn’t practically implemented until the 1960s. David J. Collins, a civil engineer at Sylvania Electrics lab, pioneered a way to scan barcodes with flashes of light, initially using barcodes to track railway cars by labeling them with patterns of bars in various colors. The Wall Street Journal, in a 2022 obituary of Collins, gives the nod of inventing the barcode to him.
The birthday of the barcode is celebrated April 3, 1973 because that’s the day the IBM version, created by senior engineer George Laurer, was approved as the industry standard.
In Laurer’s New York Times obituary of 2019, he is credited as the designer and developer of the barcode, although it notes Laurer received no royalties.
In the early summer of 1974, the first barcoded product slid across the checkout of Marsh’s supermarket outside Troy, Ohio, marking the start of a technological revolution. That first item scanned was a 10-pack bag of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum, then $1.39.
Years later, the Smithsonian had a replica of that Wrigley’s gum installed in a museum exhibition on the history of the barcode.
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