Bar Code, Retailing Innovation, Product of IBM and RTP

On June 26, 1974, a scanner at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio scanned a pack of chewing gum. It was the first product to be checked out by Universal Product Code, an invention largely credited to Research Triangle Park scientist George Laurer.

The first barcodes were developed by New Jersey engineer N. Joseph Woodland in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but the technology wasn’t brought into use largely because the scanners needed to put checkout systems into place were too expensive to produce.

In 1973, a group of supermarket executives decided some sort of universal symbol and system needed to be adopted to make checking out of stores faster. They formed a “Symbol Selection Committee,” developed a set of specifications and invited companies to pitch ideas. Though RCA had already successfully demonstrated a technology to the committee, IBM—where Laurer worked—submitted a surprise bid.

Laurer had the advantage of having not worked on a similar project before, and was thus able to tackle the problem with fresh eyes. He adapted Woodland’s bullseye-shaped design into the now universally recognizable rectangular bar code.

The committee unanimously adopted Laurer’s symbol and code in 1973, which they named the Universal Product Code, or UPC.

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