Smithsonian.com reports that
in June 1974, the first item marked with a Universal Product Code (UPC) – a
pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum – was scanned through the checkout of Marsh
Supermarket in Ohio, USA. However, the journey of this bar code began a few
decades before that.
The concept of a machine-readable product code was first patented by American
inventor Joe Woodland and his associate Bernard Silver. The idea first came to
Woodland while he was on Miami Beach in January 1949 and he began drawing lines
in the sand, inspired by Morse Code. For quite some time, Woodland and Silver
had been trying to devise a type of code that could be easily and clearly
printed on groceries and then scanned to simplify stocktaking and solve the
issue of slow supermarket queues.
First envisioned as a rectangular row of lines of varying thickness, Woodland
and Silver changed their design to a bull’s eye shape, which they felt would be
easier to read from all angles. A research team at the Radio Corporation of
America (RCA) assisted with the technical development of an automated
check-out; and the first live test took place in Cincinnati in 1972.
In 1973, representatives of the grocery trade in the US began searching for a
way to introduce a Universal Product Code – which could be universally applied
to all goods manufactured for sale in supermarkets. They wanted this code to
uniquely identify the product and the company that made it. This body was
looking for a symbol that was small, neat and readable from any angle.
At the stage, Woodland was working at International Business Machines (IBM) –
and he was part of a team that submitted a version of the UPS for
consideration. The bar code that was put forward by IBM was ultimately designed
by Woodland’s colleague George Laurer, who moved away from the bull’s eye shape
to the rectangular design we are familiar with today. This is the design that
was selected by the committee.
While the manufacturing and retail industries took a few years to warm up to
the UPC, both manufacturers and mass retailers began to adopt it in the 1980s;
and by 2004, the bar code was used by 80-90% of the top 500 companies in the
Of course, coding and marking has evolved quite a lot since then. For
industry updates and cutting-edge coding technology, contact Pyrotec