The History of the Universal Product Code

On a Sunday afternoon in 1971, an I.B.M. engineer stepped out of his house in Raleigh, N.C., to consult his boss, who lived across the street. “I didn’t do what you asked,” George Laurer confessed.

Laurer had been instructed to design a code that could be printed on food labels and that would be compatible with the scanners then in development for supermarket checkout counters. He was told to model it on the bull’s-eye-shaped optical scanning code designed in the 1940s by N. Joseph Woodland, who died last month. But Laurer saw a problem with the shape: “When you run a circle through a high-speed press, there are parts that are going to get smeared,” he says, “so I came up with my own code.” His system, a pattern of stripes, would be readable even if it was poorly printed.

That pattern became the basis for the Universal Product Code, which was adopted by a consortium of grocery companies in 1973, when cashiers were still punching in all prices by hand. Within a decade, the U.P.C. — and optical scanners — brought supermarkets into the digital age. Now an employee could ring up a cereal box with a flick of the wrist. “When people find out that I invented the U.P.C., they think I’m rich,” Laurer says. But he received no royalties for this invention, and I.B.M. did not patent it.

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