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April 7, 2014 AT 1:00 pm

A short history of the modern bar code #Manufacturing Monday

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In last week’s segment, Roman Mars’ podcast 99% Invisible gave us the story behind the mid-twentieth century invention of the bar code. We here at Adafruit print thousands of barcodes daily so it was especially fun for us to take this bit of manufacturing history, from Slate.

When George Laurer goes to the grocery store, he doesn’t tell the checkout people that he invented the bar code, but his wife used to point it out. “My husband here’s the one who invented that bar code,” she’d occasionally say. And the checkout people would look at him like, “you mean there was a time when we didn’t have bar codes?”

A time without bar codes is hard to imagine now. But it wasn’t that long ago, and the story doesn’t start with George Laurer. It starts with an engineer named Joseph Woodland. In 1948 Woodland was trying to come up with simple symbol that, when scanned, would translate to a number that a computer could use to identify a product.

Legend has it that he came up with his design while sitting on the beach in Miami. He was puzzling over the whole thing, thinking about Morse code and tracing circles in the sand. When finally, bull’s-eye!

The very first bar codes were in the shape of a bull’s-eye, though they weren’t called “bar codes” yet. Woodland’s invention was patented in 1952 as a “Classifying Apparatus and Method.” But Woodland’s “apparatus” would gather dust for 20 years—the scanners and other equipment needed to put the system in place were too expensive.

Finally, in 1973, a group of supermarket executives led by Alan Haberman decided they needed to get some kind of scannable symbol in place to move people through checkout lines faster. They laid out a list of specifications that their ideal symbol would have and asked 14 companies, including IBM, to come up with a solution.

That’s where George Laurer comes into the story.

Laurer was working at IBM at the time and was tasked with making Woodland’s circular “Classifying Apparatus and Method” work. But Laurer didn’t think the bull’s-eye would fulfill the specifications set forth by the grocery industry. So he set out to make something that would. Eventually, Laurer came up with a rectangular design that fit more code into less space and didn’t smear on the presses (like Woodland’s bull’s-eye symbol did). The “Symbol Selection Committee” voted unanimously for Laurer’s rectangular symbol and code, which they named the Universal Product Code, or UPC. A year later, in 1974, a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum became the first item to be scanned with a UPC bar code.

According to GS1 (Global Standards One), the agency which issues bar code numbers, there are now about 5 billion bar codes scanned every day around the world.

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