Could you imagine a world where barcodes doesn’t exist? When you get to the checkout lane the cashier would have to remember the price of each item or lookup for it somewhere. That would be very slow and could become annoying if there are many customers waiting in the line.
Well, some decades ago, before the barcode was invented, that was normal and everything was done manually. Stores had to shut the place down at least once in a month and count every can, bag and parcel in their shelves in order to maintain track of inventory.
The first attempt to make more efficient the checkout process was done by a business student named Wallace Flint who wrote a master thesis in which he envisioned a supermarket where customers would perforate cards to mark their selections; at the checkout counter they would insert them into a reader, which would activate machinery to bring the purchases to them on conveyer belts. The problem was that the equipment was bulky and very expensive.
In 1948, a local food chain store owner approached Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia asking about research into a method of automatically reading product information during checkout. Bernard Silver, a graduate student at Drexel Institute, along with fellow graduate student Norman Joseph Woodland, teamed together to develop a solution.
Woodland first proposed using ultraviolet light sensitive ink. A working prototype was built but rejected as being too unstable and expensive.
On 1949, Woodland and Silver succeeded in building a working prototype describing their invention as “article classification…through the medium of identifying patterns”. On 1952, they were granted a patent (US Patent #2,612,994) for their “Classifying Apparatus and Method”.
In 1966 the National Association of Food Chains (NAFC) held a meeting where they discussed the idea of using automated checkout systems. RCA, having purchased rights to the original Woodland patent, had attended the meeting and set up an internal project to develop a system based on the bullseye code. The Kroger grocery chain volunteered to test it.
In mid-1970, the NAFC in cooperation with consulting firm McKinsey & Co., developed a standardized 11-digit code to identify any product,then sent out a contract tender to develop a barcode system to print and read the code. The request went to Singer, National Cash Register (NCR), Litton Industries, RCA, Pitney-Bowes, IBM and many others. A wide variety of barcode approaches were studied, including linear codes, RCA’s bullseye concentric circle code, systems with starburst patterns, and even odder varieties.
In the spring of 1971 RCA demonstrated their bullseye code at another industry meeting, and in 1972 began a test of their system in a Kroger store in Cincinnati. Barcodes were printed on small pieces of adhesive paper, and attached by hand by store employees when they were adding price tags. The code proved to have a serious problem. During printing, presses sometimes smear ink in the direction the paper is running, rendering the code unreadable in most orientations. A linear code, like the one being developed by Woodland who was working at IBM, however, was printed in the direction of the stripes, so extra ink simply makes the code “taller” while remaining readable, and on 1973 the IBM UPC code was selected by NAFC as their standard.
NCR installed a testbed system at Marsh’s Supermarket in Troy, Ohio, USA. On June 26, 1974, Clyde Dawson pulled a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum out of his basket and it was scanned by Sharon Buchanan at 8:01 am. The pack of gum and the receipt are now on display in the Smithsonian Institution. It was the first commercial appearance of the UPC.
By 1980 the technology was being adopted by 8000 stores per year.