On June 26, 1974, the first UPC bar code was scanned on a package of Wrigley’s chewing gum at a Marsh supermarket in Ohio.
Welcome to the Era of the Bar Code
In 1974, in Troy, Ohio, a package of chewing gum slid across the countertop at the local Marsh supermarket. Its price was automatically registered by an electronic scanner, and the era of the bar code began, Fortune Magazine reported in 2004.
Time magazine praised the UPC code as the “miracle-chip brain of the check-out computer.” By electronically keeping track of inventory, the new system practically eliminated the “‘Sorry, we’re sold out’ dirge,” benefiting both retailers and consumers, Time reported. Optimistic about the future for bar code technology, Time predicted in 1978 that, “In time, chips in check-out counters will be as much a supermarket staple as the crunchy kind that comes in bags and tins.”
What happened to that first pack of Wrigley’s gum that passed under the rays of a bar code scanner? Forbes reported in 2002 that it rests safely on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
Background: A theory in progress
The earliest bar codes were used on the sides of railroad cars in the mid-1960s, Fortune notes.
When the package of Wrigley's officially beeped through a bar code scanner in 1974, it was the first commercial use of a bar code on a consumer product, and the realization of a dream hatched in 1948 by Bernard Silver, a graduate student at Drexel, according to Forbes.
Silver worked with Norman Joseph Woodland, a fellow graduate student and teacher, and they filed a patent in 1949 "for what they called the 'Classifying Apparatus and Method," Forbes reports. The retail world wasn't ready for their creation, however, and "despite joining IBM in the hopes that it would produce his invention, Woodland watched his idea languish and eventually sold his patent to another company," Fortune explains.
In the early 1970s, supermarkets saw the need for bar codes. "After weighing proposals, the committee chose the universal product code, or UPC, an IBM design that built on elements of Woodland's idea," according to Fortune.
Opinion & Analysis: Success on hold
Sources in this Story
- Time: Checking Out Tomorrow
- Forbes.com: Smarter Stripes
- Fortune Magazine: Scanning the Globe
- BBC: In praise of the barcode
- The New York Times: Technology; Bar Code Detente: U.S. Finally Adds One More Digit
- HowStuffWorks: How UPC Bar Codes Work
- CommonDreams.org (Reuters): Penguins Offer Evidence of Global Warming
- MSNBC (AP): Wait in self-check line? That's so last month
- The New York Times: Laugh Lines: Creatives Japanese Bar Codes
In the early years of bar code scanning, many manufacturers didn't put codes on their products, and stores were hesitant to purchase high-priced scanning equipment. The New York Times cited a 1976 BusinessWeek article, "The Supermarket Scanner That Failed,” that prematurely reported the bar code’s demise.
Fortune reports that, when the article was published in 1976, “Experts had predicted 1,000 stores would have scanners by that point, but only 50 had installed the costly equipment.”
Later Developments: Greater diversity in shopping; bar codes go global
Once bar codes and scanning machines began popping up across the nation, the number and variety of products in grocery stores mushroomed. The new technology also allowed retailers to adjust the prices of their products based on inflation.
“Now the average supermarket carries around 25,000 product lines and they can only do that because barcodes make it easy to maintain a database of a store’s stock in which prices can be changed with the click of a mouse,” the BBC reported in 2002.
As of Jan. 1, 2005, the Uniform Code Council required U.S. bar code scanners to read 13 digits instead of 12, The New York Times reported. Europe has been using a 13-digit code since 1977 to recognize items from different countries.
Reference: The science behind the code
So what do all those numbers mean anyway? HowStuffWorks offers a brief tutorial on how to read a UPC bar code.
Related Topics: Birds with bar codes; High-tech supermarkets; Japanese bar code art
Bar codes aren’t just for merchandise anymore. Reuters reported that researchers studying Adelie penguin colonies in Antarctica have inserted "bar code identifying chips” in adult penguins’ shoulders. They hope that information gathered on the Adelie colony population will provide insight to global warming trends in the area.
Checking out at the grocery store is getting faster, easier and more high-tech, the Associated Press noted in 2007. Supermarkets across the nation have installed self-checkout counters where customers scan, bag and pay for their items without the assistance of a store clerk. Some stores have gone a step further, utilizing bar code technology to create “personal scanners.” Shoppers simply scan items as they take them off the shelves and pay at a terminal at the end, avoiding the checkout line completely.
Perhaps where you'd least expect it, bar codes are also turning up as art. The New York Times offers a collection of “witty Japanese UPC symbols” by some Japanese companies who have incorporated their product-identifying bar codes into small works of graphic art.