Where did all that barcoding come from?

10 min readAug 5, 2022

1. Checkout what we are using!

Troy, a small town in Miami County, Ohio may not be globally famous, but it holds a special place in the history of the grocery world, which it rightly celebrates every few years. It was here, at the checkout of Troy’s Marsh Supermarket, just after opening time on June 26, 1974 that, for the first time, a product marked with a UPC (Universal Product Code) was scanned. Barcodes were born!

At the time, the National Cash Register was headquartered in Ohio, and Troy was home to the Hobart Corporation, which was responsible for machines which weighed and priced machines for loose products, like meat. The evening prior to this historic checkout moment, Marsh staff had been busy applying barcodes to hundreds of items, while the National Cash Register came to set up the scanners and computer systems. Clyde Dawson was the first shopper — well, he was Marsh’s head of research and development — and was served by cashier Sharon Buchanan. Apparently, Dawson pulled a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum from his basket to be scanned, but it wasn’t a random choice, skeptics had thought a barcode couldn’t be printed on something as small as a pack of gum, but Wrigley had found a way to make it work and Dawson was able to prove the doubters wrong. Their reward? A place in retail, and American, history.

2. Drawing the future in the sand

Miami Beach can stir up all sorts of ideas and images in our minds, but we doubt it has made many people think of barcodes! That’s not the case where Joe Woodland was concerned, as that’s where he was sitting when he came up with the concept. Drawing his creation in the sand with his finger, he described it as sounding like a fairy tale. He had been looking for some kind of code that could be printed on products and scanned quickly at checkouts, so supermarket queues would move more efficiently and stocktaking would be easier. Though he was looking for a solution, it wasn’t exactly his own problem; a long-suffering supermarket manager had asked a dean at Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia to come up with a way of allowing his customers to move through his store quicker, as long queues, delays and more stocktaking meant he was losing out on profit. The dean wasn’t interested, but someone who overheard the conversation was. That was Bernard “Bob” Silver, a junior postgraduate who went to Woodland with the issue. Woodland graduated from Drexel in 1947, was an inventor, and he decided to accept solving the challenge Silver had come to him with.

It was a challenge Woodland had full self-confidence in achieving, so much so that he left graduate school in winter 1948 to live in Miami Beach in an apartment his grandfather owned to work on the project, using cashed-in stocks to keep the wolf from the door. By January 1949 he had had his breakthrough, but it would take another quarter of a century for his brilliantly simple idea, quickly reaching all corners of the globe, to become a reality.

3. Learning to code

The concept was sparked by Morse Code, which Woodland had mastered when he was in the Boy Scouts. The dots and dashes system came into his mind one day when lazing in a beach chair, contemplating the dilemma. Here’s what he said:

I remember I was thinking about dots and dashes when I poked my four fingers into the sand and, for whatever reason — I didn’t know — I pulled my hand toward me and I had four lines. I said ‘Golly! Now I have four lines and they could be wide lines and narrow lines, instead of dots and dashes. Now I have a better chance of finding the doggone thing.’ Then, only seconds later, I took my four fingers — they were still in the sand — and I swept them round into a circle.

Off the beach and back to Philadelphia, Woodland teamed up with Silver to find out if they could create a working system for the idea with the technology at their disposal. First, they filed for a patent, which wasn’t granted for another three years. While the patent describes the concept quite basically, only a tiny amount of anecdotal evidence exists about what Woodland and Silver actually constructed. Woodland’s home housed a rough prototype, using a 500-watt incandescent bulb, with an oscilloscope to decipher the code. It worked, to a certain degree, it is claimed, yet a more unbiased evaluation said it was twenty years ahead of its time. The two men had the concept they required, but, integrally, were lacking both the computer and very bright light needed to read the monochrome barcodes.

4. LA Man Discovers Science Fiction Death Ray

“It looks like something a plumber made.” That was the unenthusiastic response from Carl Byoir, head of public relations at Culver City, California’s Hughes Aircraft Company, when he first set eyes on the laser. His indifference didn’t deter the company from making one of the biggest announcements in science history just twenty-four hours later at New York’s Delmonico Hotel. In front of the waiting press, research scientist Theodore Maiman produced an “atomic radio light brighter than the center of the sun”, known as a “laser”, an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

It was like something straight out of science fiction. The laser caused much intrigue among the journalists, who wanted to know its uses and purposes. Maiman explained that its “coherence”, or concentration, was so great that the light would only spread 100 feet if beamed from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Hot and sharp enough to cut through certain materials, Maiman had to assure the media when questioned that it was not intended to be used as a weapon. This didn’t prevent the Los Angeles Herald running with the headline, “LA Man Discovers Science Fiction Death Ray”. This, unfortunately for Maiman and co. became the running theme in the newspapers.

Seeing off strong competition from all over the world, Maiman had won the race to build the inaugural laser. It must have been a thrilling moment for him and his associate Irnee d’Haenens when the first unsteady beam was produced. At the time, they didn’t know the possible practical uses, but they envisioned applications in the fields of science, medicine and surgery, communications and industry. One thing they didn’t see coming was the barcode! As Maiman put it, “I did not foresee the supermarket check-out scanner or the printer.”

5. The bullseye hits the sales target

“Just dreaming a little…could an optical scanner read the price and total the sale… Faster service, more productive service is needed desperately. We solicit your help.” That was the desperate plea for a brighter future to end a booklet written by the Kroger Company in 1966. At the time, they ran one of the biggest supermarket chains in America, but had no business in electronics, so they went in search of a partner who could make their efficient, speedy service dream a reality.

Their prayers were answered by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), who had a modest research team working on new projects. One of which was an automatic bank cash machine, but didn’t run with it as they believed the customer wouldn’t buy the idea. Their research had seen them dig up some short-lived ideas for solving the same problem; in one, customers came to the cashier with punch cards that indicated what they wanted to buy, and the cashier then went and retrieved the items. There was also a patent for a machine that scanned everything in the customer’s basket at once, identified each product, and printed a bill.

It wasn’t long before they came across the Woodland and Silver patent, a design which had ended up as a bullseye of concentric circles. During their work, the two men had claimed the bullseye was a more fitting symbol as it would be able to be properly read from any angle, so they abandoned the rectangular bar design Woodland had first drawn in the Miami Beach sand.

It transpired that the bullseye design wasn’t practical; any imperfections in the printing would cause the whole system to be unusable. A few of the issues were resolved by a rotating turret of pens, and even a pen that could write upside down, used by astronauts. The RCA had commissioned many companies to work on these developments in preparation for the first real-life test which would take place in Cincinnati at the Kroger Kenwood Plaza store, where on July 3rd, 1972, the first automated checkstands were installed. These checkstands, plus the others put in place at other Kroger supermarkets, showed undeniable, positive results: the bullseye hit the target! The sales figures were through the roof. This was, however, just one store in a global, billion-dollar business. The laser and barcode would need near universal usage if the checkout counter were to be revolutionized. One of the RCA’s original checkstands is now housed in the Smithsonian collection.

6. Universal code — the search and the decision

The Ad Hoc Committee of the Universal Product Identification Code had one job and one job only; these representatives of the grocery business were tasked with creating a method of introducing a barcode — a Universal Product Code to give it the official title — of some shape or form, that would be printed on products by the retailers and producers and be common to all items sold in supermarkets.The code could tell you what the product was and who made it, information that would be read by computers with scanners. Plus some variation could be introduced in the form of reductions or special offers. There was plenty of vision and ideas, but actually realizing these goals was proving monumental.

The idea of universal code was one many manufacturers rode back from, mainly as they had their own identification systems which would become redundant or heavily adapted. There were worries from the cardboard industry that printed codes would ruin their products, while canners weren’t interested in compulsory barcode printing on their cans. Eventually a workable idea was proposed, but it took four years to get there.

The Symbol Committee, a technical offshoot of the Ad Hoc Committee, received systems from seven different US-based companies. RCA demonstrated the system they were using in Cincinnati and the committee declared that theirs was clearly the best of the contenders.

That was until, at the eleventh hour, International Business Machine (IBM) launched an unexpected bid. Their decision to enter seemed to be little more than an afterthought as they had no invention to show the committee, although they did have a certain Joe Woodland on their payroll. But, it transpired, although Woodland had input in IBM’s entry, he did not create its version of the barcode. That was the work of George Laurer who, in his mind, had an advantage over the competition as neither he nor his employers had spent any time on the supermarket checkouts’ problems and had no technology ready to go, but instead had a fresh pair of eyes to look at the problem from scratch. Not prejudiced about how the barcode looked, his bosses still presumed that it would clearly resemble the circular bullseye design from Woodland’s patent, and the RCA’s original system in Ohio.

The Symbol Select Committee provided Laurer with the barcode’s specifications they had determined: at a maximum 1.5 square inches, it had to be small and neat and to cut costs it had to be printed with already existing technology used for normal labels. Only ten digits would be needed, it had to be readable at speed from all directions and it would be a no-go if it had more than one undetected error in every 20,000.

Despite some early skepticism from within IBM, Laurer was able to convince them to give him permission to start on a rectangular barcode. A prototype scanner was constructed by an IBM division, allowing Laurer’s Universal Product Code to be tried out. “There were many skeptics in IBM,” Laurer said, “not the least of whom was (IBM boss) B.O. Evans himself.” The test, however, was a success, “However at the end of a flawless demonstration for Mr. Evans, we had our ace softball pitcher pitch beanbag ash ashtrays, with symbols on the bottom, as fast as he could over the scanner. When each one read correctly, Mr. Evans was convinced.”

Convincing Mr Evans was one thing, but selling it to the Symbol Select Committee was another, as they were under mounting pressure to accept the bullseye symbol by RCA which was already in operation and was giving hope that a UPC would be usable. The committee met in a hotel on March 30th, 1973, near New York City’s Grand Central Station, having received appraisals from the rivals at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to make their final decision. Alan Haberman, committee chairman, asked them to explain how certain they were that they had chosen the correct design. Confidence was high from those involved, with declarations of 90 per cent all round, and in the end, Laurer’s rectangular code was deemed the winner.

It must have been an extraordinary experience for Woodland to see the Morse Code lines he had drawn in the sand in 1949 come to life in a sophisticated and functioning form. All that needed doing now was registering a reasonably priced laser scanner with a concentrated beam of light, which, with a microcomputer, could read and decipher the information on alternating black and white lines printed on products. Woodland saw his creation in action countless times before his death at the age of 91 in 2012.

7. Logging, popularity and research

The UPC, like a lot of new inventions, didn’t exactly hit the ground running. But once mass merchandisers such as Kmart began adopting it, it really began to take off, but then, it was these big retailers and supermarkets, like Walmart, that this technology was invented for originally, so they could log and keep track of millions of items. By the 1980s, the barcode was all over the grocery and retail business and was also transforming the manufacturing industry; you could find them on anything that benefitted from rapid identification. Fortune magazine estimated in 2004 that between 80 and 90 percent of the USA’s top 500 companies were barcode users.

What started out as a plea by supermarket owners to have technology available that could quicken the checkout procedure and increase daily sales, providing hard, statistical proof for what sells well and what does not is probably its most valuable effect on business and industry. Market research has been revolutionized by it, giving us thorough knowledge of people’s tastes and preferences, while increasing the efficiency of production lines.