On Tuesday, engineer-scientist George Laurer died in Wendell, North Carolina, at age 94. He was the co-developer of the Universal Product Code (UPC), or barcode, in 1973. It is an invention that changed the way businesses work.
Before the barcode
Today, shoppers simply pick up a product at a store or a mall, and pay the bill as determined by a scan of the barcode. Before the invention, store owners had to assign employees to individually label each product on sale. Laurer recalled the cumbersome process in a 2010 interview to The Washington Post: “Grocery stores in the 1970s were dealing with soaring costs and the labour-intensive requirements of putting price tags on all of their products.” That’s when Laurer invented barcode together with Norman Joseph Woodland, who died in 2012.
How the idea took shape
Barcode was the brainchild of Woodland; Laurer is credited with bringing the idea to fruition. It was in the 1950s that Woodland thought about developing a system based on barcode symbology, called Bulls-Eye Barcode, which would describe a product and its price in a code readable by a machine. Initially, Woodland took inspiration from the Morse Code, the well-known character-encoding scheme in telecommunications defined by dots and dashes.
Woodland’s idea seemed workable but he was unable to develop the system as the cost of laser and computing technology was extremely high in the 1950s. Two decades later, in the 1970s, Laurer, who was then working for IBM, put Woodland’s idea to work, armed with less expensive laser and computing technology.
Laurer found that a rectangle system, which we see on most barcodes today, would be more workable than Bull’s-Eye, which used a series of concentric circles that looked complicated. He developed a scanner with strips instead of circles. The very first barcode transaction was on a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum.
What it is today
Over the years, the barcode has transformed the way the retail industry functions globally. Barcodes can be found in hundreds and thousands of products for identification and scanning, and allow retailers to identify prices instantly. They also allow for easy check-outs and fewer pricing errors, and let retailers keep better account of their inventory.
The barcode also changed the balance of power in the retail industry.
For a small, family-run convenience store, the barcode scanner was an expensive solution to problems they did not really have, BBC World explained in a 2017 article. But big supermarkets could spread the cost of the scanners across many more sales. They valued shorter queues, and also needed to keep track of inventory.
As a result, as the barcode spread in the 1970s and 1980s, large retailers also expanded. During the 25th anniversary celebration of the barcode’s invention at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington DC, Laurer told WRAL-TV in an interview that he was awestruck by his own invention. “When I watch these clerks zipping the stuff across the scanners and I keep thinking to myself… It can’t work that well,” he said.
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