At 8:01 a.m. on 26 June 1974, an employee of the Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio, scanned the first barcode as Clyde Dawson bought a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum. (As child, hat was my favorite gum!)
IBM engineer George Laurer developed the linear bar code, a “better system” than a “bull’s-eye” pattern patented in 1952. Not only was that 1952 design “too small,” most food label printing presses lacked the fidelity to reproduce it without smearing.
When it came time to present to the team of grocery executives, Laurer said his boss “made it clear that if I was wrong or I could not sell the idea to the brass, it would end my career, not his. My arguments must have been persuasive.”
According to the Smithsonian, the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. created the “Ad Hoc Committee of the Grocery Industry” to develop the barcode. They picked Laurer’s design.
The codes even caused a campaign trail gaffe in 1992, when President George H.W. Bush was reportedly astounded by a bar code scanner during a tour of a grocery convention, playing into a narrative that Bush was out of touch with regular people. (It later turned out the scanner he was confronted with had advanced features not yet available.)
The next time you visit The Smithsonian National Museum of American History, you might be able to see one of the first 10 scanners in use at American supermarkets.
When Laurer died in 2019, scanners recorded more than 6 billion barcodes each day.
Which brings me to definitions.
A barcode is “an image that consists of a series of parallel black and white bars that can be read by a barcode scanner.”
- A universal product code (UPC) is a unique identifier for retail products. A global standards organization, GS1 US, manages UPCs in the United States. It consists of a six-digit manufacturer identification number and a five-digit item number. The last digit is a “check digit” that allows the scanner and computer to confirm that the UPC number is valid.
- A stock keeping unit (SKU) is an internal barcode that a firm uses to manage product inventory. It is unique to a company.
- A QR (quick response) code is a barcode that originated in Japan to “easily track automobiles and automobile parts during manufacturing.” Mobile payment systems have leveraged the technology in a way the inventor never imagined.