30 Jul 2014
The bar code — those 12 tiny black stripes that are now printed on practically every package and are used for everything from pricing to inventory to tracking through the supply chain — celebrated its 40th anniversary last month.
On June 26,1974, the first bar code was used to ring up a 10-pack of Wrigleys’ Juicy Fruit gum at the Marsh Supermarket, in Troy, Ohio. The price was 67 cents. Today, that package of gum is on display in the Smithsonian Institute, in Washington, D.C., as an artifact of American history.
The UPC Truly is Universal
Today, the bar code is everywhere. It’s what allows FedEx to guarantee overnight delivery. It’s what allows Walmart to keep its prices low thanks to its just-in-time supply chain logistics. It’s what powers Toyota’s revolutionary kanban manufacturing system. It is used on everything from boarding passes to hospital patient wristbands, from rental cards to nuclear waste.
Alan Haberman, a supermarket executive from Massachusetts who led a committee that was seeking way to modernize the grocery industry, is credited with giving birth to the bar code. But he didn’t invent it.
It was based on an idea by Joe Woodland, a grad school dropout who in 1949 drew Morse code dots and dashes on a Florida beach then drew vertical lines down from each character to tease out the first prototype of the modern bar code.
Allowed Systems to Be Interchangable
The bar code was created out of necessity. By the late 1960s, some manufacturers and retailers started putting their own product coding systems in place, but unlike the bar code, these symbol’s couldn’t “talk” to each other, according to Stephen A. Brown, author of the book “Revolution at the Checkout Counter”.
“The grocery product manufacturers — Kellogg’s, General Mills, people like that — they were terrified at the thought that they would soon be facing conflicting demands from their customers,” Brown told the New York Times. “That Safeway would ask them to put on a symbol that was a a semicircle, that Kroger would ask them to put on a symbol that was a square, and so on.”
In 1973, Haberman chose the bar code over other contenders, including circles, bull’s eyes and seemingly random agglomerations of dots. He tirelessly urged manufacturers, retailers and the public to embrace the strange new symbol. His efforts ushered in the new world of information technology.
Bar Codes and the Book of Genesis
Haberman himself understood that bar codes — also known as Universal Product Codes, or UPCs for short — offered more than just a better way to manage inventory at his supermarkets. They provide an almost Biblical type of globalization.
“Go back to Genesis and read about the Creation,” Haberman once told the Boston Globe. “God says, ‘I will call the night “night”; I will call the heavens “heaven”. Naming was important. Then the Tower of Babel came along and messed everything up. In effect,the UPC has put everything back into one language, a kind of Esperanto, that works for everyone.”
Today’s bar codes aren’t limited to information about a products price or description. It can convey instructions to a three dimensional printer that can be used to create the object itself.