The UPC is so ubiquitous for today’s shopper that it’s jarring to shop at one of the few retail establishments not using it (looking at you, Hobby Lobby). But it was just 44 years ago that the Uniform Product Code made its debut.
On June 26, 1974, Clyde Dawson, the head of research at Marsh Supermarket, visited one of his stores in Troy, Ohio, and purchased a package of Wrigley Juicy Fruit. One Sharon Buchanan rang him up on a scanner that is now part of the Smithsonian’s collection. Dawson selected the Juicy Fruit because it was the smallest item in his basket, and he wanted to show the effectiveness of the UPC at any size.
#DidYouKnow that the first UPC scanned was for a pack of Juicy Fruit purchased in Troy, Ohio? @SmarterMSP
Path to the bar code
The symbol that revolutionized retail inventory and sped up the checkout line was a long time in the making. In 1948, Joseph Woodland was sitting on the beach in Miami thinking about how to create a symbol that would allow computers to recognize a product. Thinking about Morse code, he began tracing circles in the sand and suddenly saw a bull’s-eye pattern. He had an answer. He patented the “Classifying Apparatus and Method” in 1952, but due to the cost of scanning equipment and printing issues, the symbol didn’t take off, despite testing in Kroger supermarkets.
Then IBM decided to tackle the project in the early 1970s, and George Laurer was added to the team. He developed the rectangular bar code design still used today, which took up less space than the bullseye and didn’t smear on the printing press.
Today, more than 5 billion bar codes are scanned each day, according to GS1, the global issuer of bar codes. Sadly for Laurer, he receives no royalties from the UPC design, and IBM did not patent the invention. Laurer has spent the ensuing years dispelling the conspiracy theory that each bar code contains the numbers “666” and the UPC is the “mark of the beast” foretold in Revelations.
Photo: l i g h t p o e t/Shutterstock.com