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UPC Bar Code History

HISTORY of the UPC Bar Code:

The history of the UPC bar code and how the bar code symbol and system became a world standard.

Wallace Flint was the first person to suggest an automated checkout system in 1932. Flint's system was economically unfeasible, however, 40 years later, Flint, as vice-president of the National Association of Food Chains, supported the efforts which led to the Uniform Product Code (UPC).

Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver are most often credited as having originally invented the barcode on October 20, 1949 by filing patent application serial number 122,416 (which became Patent Number 2,612,994). Though Woodland and Silver pioneered the concept of a symbol and a reader, it was not until 1974 that the first UPC bar code was actually used in a supermarket.

On June 26, 1974 at 8:01 am, at a Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio, a 10-pack of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit was run through a hand-made laser scanner made by NCR Corp. (then called National Cash Register Co). The register rang up this sale - 67 cents (according to wrigley.com see '1974') - marking the first time in history that a UPC was used at checkout. With that, a new, computerized era in supermarket shopping began. Since that first pack of gum, (which just happened to be the first item shopper Clyde Dawson lifted from the cart at Marsh's Supermarket that day), the black and white UPC bar codes we see in use everywhere today have helped speed checkout and track the sales of billions of items at retail establishments everywhere. Also in 1974, National Cash Register Co changed its name to NCR.

George Laurer is credited as the inventor of the modern UPC bar code system.

It was 1970 when McKinsey & Co. (a consulting firm) in conjunction with UGPCC (which stood for the Uniform Grocery Product Code Council, a corporation formed by the grocery industries' leading trade associations* ) defined a numeric format for product identification. A request was made to many companies to make a proposal of a code, a symbol incorporating the code, and specifications for both. The request went to Singer, National Cash Register, Litton Industries, RCA, Pitney-Bowes, IBM and many others large and small.

*The UGPCC became the UPCC which became the UCC.
See HISTORY: Uniform Code Council, Inc.

Most of the other companies had optical codes and scanning equipment in the market place already. IBM did not. Therefore, in 1971 George Laurer was given the task by IBM management to design the best code and symbol suitable for the grocery industry.

In May of 1973, IBM's proposal was accepted. The only changes made by UGPCC was the type font used for the human readable and the ink contrast specification. 

Following the acceptance of the original UPC specification, George Laurer was asked to find a way to add another digit. The symbol already held twelve, the eleven required by UGPCC and a check digit George Laurer added to achieve the required reliability. The addition of the thirteenth digit could not cause the equipment to require extensive modification. Further, the original domestic version could not be modified. 

The extra digit would allow for "country identification" and make the UPC worldwide. Again George Laurer found a way to accommodate the requirement and the EAN (European Article Numbering system) symbol was born. Many countries are using the same symbol with their identifying country "flag" (the 13th digit), but chose to call the symbol by other names. An example is JAN (Japanese Article Numbering system), the Japanese version. The symbol has truly become worldwide. 

In the years since 1973, George Laurer has proposed, and the Uniform Product Code Council, Inc. (formerly UGPCC) has accepted, several other enhancements. Among these enhancements is a price check digit for domestic and another for European markets. There is also an expanded symbol, Version D, which has not yet seen wide use.

History of the modern bar code above provided by George Laurer himself. Please be sure to visit George Laurer's web Site. Semi-retired, George continues to consult on UPC bar codes on a freelance basis. George Laurer was inducted into the Innovation Hall of Fame (IHOF) in May 1991 in recognition of his significant inventions and for creating the standard form of the Universal Product Code. A 36-year veteran of the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) who retired in June of 1987, George Laurer is the holder of 25 patents. He is also the author of 20 published Technical Disclosure Bulletins. During his career, IBM recognized and rewarded him for many technical innovations. He received the prestigious “Raleigh, N.C. Inventor of the Year” award in 1976. In 1980 he was honored with IBM’s Corporate Technical Achievement award for his work on the Universal Product Code proposal that was issued in 1970 by McKinsey & Co. and Uniform Grocery Product Code Council, Inc. Before joining IBM, he received the B.S. in electrical engineering form the University of Maryland in 1951. He came to the University after having served in World War II and attending a technical school to learn radio and TV repair. Upon completion of his first year at the technical school, his instructor convinced him that he should not continue that course of study, but that he should go to college.

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Note: This article is of an editorial nature. All trademarks and copyrights are owned by their respective owners. If you see errors or omissions, please contact me so that I may make necessary corrections. I feel the history of the bar code (as well as the future) is important and created this page since I found little about this elsewhere. I am doing my best to cross-check and verify information presented. Thanks - Rob Cummings.

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