Though it might feel like bar codes have been around forever, they’re actually a relatively new technology. First used in the early 1970s, the bar code didn’t really spring onto the scene for another decade until it flooded not only the retail and grocery industries, but other sectors like manufacturing. Now you can find bar codes practically everywhere.
But where did bar codes come from? And why were they invented?
Unsurprisingly, the story doesn’t start with a manufacturer or in a lab; instead, it all began with a store manager—an end user—looking for a solution.
The Frustrated Supermarket Manager & the Beachside Epiphany
In the 1940s, a supermarket store manager was frustrated by how long it was taking his customers to check out. (Presumably, his customers were frustrated as well; after all, who doesn’t get impatient in lines—especially at grocery stores?) But it wasn’t just frustration: because of these delays, he was losing profits.
There had to be some way to make the process go by faster. But what?
Desperate, this manager approached a dean at Drexel Institute of Technology (now known as Drexel University), a private research university in Philadelphia, for help.
Unfortunately, the dean didn’t listen to him—but fortunately, someone else did: a postgraduate student named Bernard “Bob” Silver, who was interested by this request and thought that it might be possible to actually solve this problem.
Silver turned to Joe Woodland, a Drexel alumnus and inventor, who decided to pick up the gauntlet. Woodland retreated to his grandfather’s apartment in Miami Beach, Ohio, and one day in January 1947, he had his epiphany while sitting on the beach and running his fingers through the sand.
Woodland’s aim was to find a code of some sort that could be printed, then scanned. The original design that came to him that day was based on Morse code, with four lines. Then he changed the design from bars to a circular bull’s-eye shape.
Afterwards, Woodland and Silver filed a patent for this code in 1949, which was granted in 1952. It wasn’t called a bar code then, but a “Classifying Apparatus and Method.”
In order for the code to work, though, they needed a microcomputer and a very bright light to read the code. Neither existed yet.
The code, essentially, was invented 20 years too soon.
The First Laser
The next step in the invention of the bar code came with the creation of the world’s very first laser. In 1960, a scientist named Thomas Maiman from the Hughes Aircraft Company in Culver City, Calif., announced his invention.
Described as an “atomic radio light brighter than the center of the sun,” the laser was actually an acronym that stood for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.”
In other words, pretty powerful stuff—so much so, in fact, that newspapers sensationalized it, portraying the laser as a potential weapon. (One newspaper’s headline was: “LA Man Discovers Science Fiction Death Ray.”)
In our story, however, this was the bright light that Woodland and Silver had envisioned that was capable of reading their bar code.
Kroger & the Scanner Plea
Six years later, in 1966, Kroger, the Ohio-based grocery company, published a booklet lamenting their need for an optical scanner. They, like the original frustrated supermarket manager in the 1940s, noted a need for technological advances.
Then their plea was picked up by Radio Corporation of America (RCA).
RCA & the First Automated Check Stands
At the time, RCA was a major American electronics company which controlled communications across the U.S. One of their research terms was exploring new projects and decided to take up the mantle of the bar code.
After they found the Woodland and Silver’s patent, they moved forward with developing this technology.
In 1972, they ran their first real-life test at the Kroger Kenwood Plaza store in Cincinnati, Ohio. After installing the first automated check stands, they ran products with bull’s-eye bar codes. Overall, the entire operation was a success. The bar codes read perfectly, and sales were high.
But this was only one store, and they wanted to prove that the bull’s-eye could be used across bigger operations.
The Invention of the UPC Code
As RCA continued to work on the bar code solution, the Ad Hoc Committee of the Universal Product Identification Code had one mission: to find and implement a Universal Product Code (UPC) that could be printed on all products and used by both grocers and manufacturers.
The UPC would contain important information such as the product type, the manufacturer’s name, etc. Then in-store computers would read this information on scanners.
Seven U.S. companies came up with proposals for these systems and submitted them to the Symbol Committee, which was part of the Ad Hoc Committee, for approval. Many thought RCA would be the logical choice.
But then International Business Machines (IBM) came in from out of the blue and turned in a last-minute bid that would change everything.
The New (Old) Bar Code
George Laurer, an IBM employee, was given the challenge of coming up with the kind of bar code the committee was looking for.
Instead of using the modified bull’s-eye bar code that Woodland and Silver had patented, he went back to the original design Woodland had drawn in the sand: four lines—bars—in a rectangular shape.
Laurer ended up inventing the first UPC. One of IBM’s divisions built a prototype scanner, and both were submitted to the committee.
On March 30, 1973, the Symbol Selection Committee reviewed all of the submissions and ultimately decided to use Laurer’s UPC bar code.
Wrigley’s Gum, NCR & the First Bar Code Scan
Now that the UPC was selected, it was time to put in into action.
A little over a year later, on June 26, 1974, the first item with a UPC was scanned a checkout in Troy’s Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio. Many heavy grocery-related contenders were based in Troy at the time including National Cash Register (NCR) and Hobart Corporation, so Troy was a prime choice.
This was a huge event. The night before, store employees affixed bar codes on hundreds of items. NCR, meanwhile, installed their computers and scanners.
Marsh Supermarket’s head of research and development, Clyde Dawson, chose the first item to be scanned with a bar code. Per legend, it was a Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit, specifically chosen to prove to naysayers that the code could be read even on the smallest of items.
Bar Codes: From Grocery to Manufacturing
You would think that after this successful demonstration, the bar code would immediately take off, right? This wasn’t really the case, though. Turns out, it took a few years for the bar code to gain popularity.
Kmart became the first mass merchandiser to use the bar code in its stores. Later, in the 1980s, many other retail and grocery store chains implemented the bar code as well. Then other industries utilized it—including manufacturing.
And how are things today? Per GS1, a company that issues bar codes, UPCs, and prefixes, people scan about 5 billion bar codes daily on a global scale.
- Mars, Roman. 99%. “A Short History of the Modern Bar Code.” Slate’s Design Blog, 3 Apr. 2014, slate.com. Accessed 28 June 2017.
- Weightman, Gavin. “The History of the Bar Code.” Smithsonian Magazine, 23 Sept. 2015, www.smithsonianmag.com. Accessed 28 June 2017.
Note: This post was originally published in June 2017. It has been updated and revised for relevance.