In the world of retail, barcodes have become a ubiquitous and essential tool for tracking products, managing inventory, and increasing efficiency. However, it wasn’t always this way.
The Development of the Barcode
In the 1970s, the retail industry was facing a major challenge. As the number of products being sold in stores increased, it became more difficult for retailers to accurately track and manage their inventory. This resulted in inefficiencies and increased costs for retailers. They needed a way to get customers through stores quickly because logistics were stopping them meeting demand since typing in product numbers and prices into tills was cumbersome.
The Beginnings of Barcodes
The first barcode was invented in 1948 by Norman Woodland and Bernard Silver, who were both students at Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Woodland’s eureka moment came when he was on a Miami beach, drawing morse code in the sand. Looking at his dots and dashes, he realised that differing lines or shapes could be used to encode different numbers. His initial design for the barcode, which consisted of concentric circles of varying width, was inspired by his swirls in the sand.
This barcode was used to identify individual products, making it easier for retailers to track and manage their inventory. But this did not solve enough problems to be accepted widely. The first attempts at implementation used an ultraviolet ink, but it rubbed off too easily – it would have to be a printed design. It took another two decades before barcodes gained commercial success in supermarkets. In the intervening period barcodes did find use on the railways, plastered across freight trains to be scanned by lights and sensors – but huge operating costs soon put a stop to that.
The development of the barcode we know today and its widespread adoption was the result of the efforts of many people, but one person stands out: George Laurer.
Background of George Laurer
George Laurer was born on December 9, 1924, in Brooklyn, New York. He served in the United States Army during World War II before going to college to study electrical engineering. After graduation, he went to work for IBM, where he would spend the majority of his career.
The UCC reached out to IBM to help develop a system that could solve the barcode problem. IBM assigned George Laurer to the project, and he began working on developing a new system that could be used to identify products in a more efficient and accurate way.
After conducting extensive research and experimentation, Laurer came up with the design for the Universal Product Code (UPC), which became the first widely adopted barcode system. The UPC used a symbology that consisted of a series of parallel lines of different widths and spacings, which could be easily read by a barcode scanner. The symbology was designed to be simple and efficient, and as laser technology made scanning possible, it quickly became the standard for the retail industry. The codes finally made it into supermarkets when they were unveiled in 1974 in Troy, Ohio. As the store opened, a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum was the first barcoded item to be scanned – chosen to prove how barcodes worked even on much smaller packaging. Britain’s turn came five years later on a box of Melrose teabags. In 1979 at the Keymarkets supermarket in Lincolnshire, the box was swiped across the scanner and the price popped up on screen.
Laurer’s work made it possible for retailers to accurately track and manage their products at a scale that was previously impossible. His UPC (universal product code) system was quickly adopted by retailers, and by the early 1970s, barcodes were a standard part of the retail industry.