Today in History – June 26, 1974 – First barcode using the universal product code (UPC) was scanned by a cashier at a supermarket checkout counter. A shopper named Clyde Dawson handed a cashier at the Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio named Sharon Buchanan a 10-pack of chewing gum. The gum’s black and white barcode was scanned with a $4000 laser scanner from PSC, Inc. and rang up at 67 cents. A new era in supermarket shopping was born.
The barcode was originally patented by Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver on October 7, 1952 for “Classifying Apparatus and Method”. Although it was commercially available in 1966, it took work in standardizing to make it successful. George J. Lauer is credited with the invention of the Universal Product Code (UPC) that made barcodes viable (left image above).
If you are interested in seeing Clyde Dawson’s package of Juicy Fruit gum, go to the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of American History. Today supermarket barcodes are standard and available for a fraction of their original cost.
Thirty-four years after their introduction, barcodes on supermarket items may soon become as antiquated as audio cassettes – they only tell the cashier which type of product is being sold, while Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) allows retailers to track every item individually through the use of smart tags.
Because such tags transmit the information they contain to any RFID reader nearby, employees locate misplaced items more easily and hopefully deter theft. While cost concerns have hindered the adoption of the new technology, just like its predecessor in the 1970s, the humble bar code seems unlikely to stand a chance once RFID reaches critical mass.
Luckily, it has found many other uses beyond retail, in fields such as certified mail, courier services and airline luggage processing, although customers might come to wish airlines placed smart tags on their suitcases. Two novel areas stand out: airline check-in and e-government.
If you recently checked in for your flight using your home or work computer, rather than at the airport kiosk, you might have noticed that the bar code on your boarding pass looked a bit odd – the black-and-white pattern was more complex than the usual array of vertical bars we all have grown accustomed to. You were, in fact, staring at a two-dimensional bar code.
Two-dimensional bar codes were developed in the late 1980s to store large amounts of information with high security, especially when space is limited. They are also extremely difficult to forge. Continental Airlines even hopes to let customers check in by uploading 2D bar codes on their cell phones, which would decrease paper costs, and is now testing the viability of the approach in a pilot program.
The US government uses bar codes too. The American embassy in London, among others, puts bar codes in the confirmation emails it sends to visa applicants once they have submitted their documentation online. The bar code is scanned when the candidates arrive at the embassy for their interview, allowing the visa officer to quickly access their information. Paper tax forms have bar codes as well. Additional potential applications include driver’s licenses and medical patient records.
Even if bar codes disappear from retailers’ shelves, they will not go the way of the audio cassettes any time soon.
For more information, see the Engineering Pathway‘s resources on barcodes and RFID tags. Additional curricular materials on modern manufacturing practices can be found on the Manufacturing Engineering Education or the Industrial Engineering Education community sites.