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June 26, 1974: The Universal Product Code is scanned for the first time in a commercial setting  

 

GregBO
Admin
Joined: 2 years ago
Posts: 3814
26/06/2020 3:26 pm  

A supermarket cashier scanned a multipack of chewing gum across a bar-code scanner in Troy, Ohio on June 26, 1974. It's the first product ever checked out by Universal Product Code.

Some people may be unable to remember when grocery clerks had to put price stickers on nearly every item in the store, and retail cashiers had to read a price tag by eye and key in the price by hand, but that's the way things were. The process was not only laborious, but it left the store manager with no idea of how much of each of thousands of different products had been sold and how much remained in stock.

There were four main methods of keeping tabs of inventory: Look for empty spots on the shelves and in storerooms, conduct a labor-intensive inventory during overnight downtime every week or so, take whatever the chain-store regional managers wanted to send you, or just guess. Good guessers at the local level got promoted to make regional guesses.

Even so, the supermarket bar code was a long time coming. It was an idea that needed to find a practical technology as well as appropriate application for it.

Drexel University graduate students Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland began working in 1948 on a retail-checkout system that would keep track of inventory. They started with ink patterns that would glow in ultraviolet light. Expensive. Hard to make the ink long-lasting.
 
Although the patent illustrates the basic concept, there is only a smattering of anecdotal evidence about what Woodland and Silver actually built. A crude prototype in Woodland’s own home used a powerful 500-watt incandescent bulb. An oscilloscope was used to "read" the code; the whole thing was the size of a desk. Allegedly, it worked, up to a point. But an objective evaluation judged it to be 20 years ahead of its time. Woodland and Silver had the right idea, but they lacked the minicomputer and, critically, a very bright light with which to "read" the black and white bar code.
 
A booklet produced in 1966 by the Kroger Company, which ran one of the largest supermarket chains in North America, signed off with a despairing wish for a better future: "Just dreaming a little . . . could an optical scanner read the price and total the sale. . . . Faster service, more productive service is needed desperately. We solicit your help." Kroger’s business was groceries, not electronics, so the company went looking for a partner with the necessary expertise.
 
They soon found the Woodland and Silver patent. This was not the rectangular bar code that Woodland had first envisaged on Miami Beach but the "bull's-eye" of concentric circles he thought would be a better design. When he and Silver worked on it, they decided the bull's-eye was the better symbol because it could be read accurately from any angle.
 

​"What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal." -Albert Pike

​"​My father didn't tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.​" - Clarence Buddinton Kelland


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GregBO
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Posts: 3814
26/06/2020 4:40 pm  

The goal of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Universal Product Identification Code could be stated very simply. The representatives of the grocery trade were charged with finding a way to introduce a Universal Product Code, a bar code of some description that would be common to all goods sold in supermarkets and imprinted by the manufacturers and retailers. The code would carry information about the nature of the product, the company that made it, and so on. In-store computers would "read" this information with scanners and introduce their own variations, which might involve special offers and reductions. The vision was there but the difficulties in the way of its realization were daunting.

Manufacturers were often resistant to the idea of a universal code. They had existing methods of identification of products, which would have to be discarded or adapted. Cardboard manufacturers worried that a printed code might spoil their product. Canners did not want to be obliged to put bar codes on the base of cans. It took four years to arrive at a workable proposition to put to the whole industry.

In the end, seven companies, all of them based in the United States, submitted systems to the Symbol Committee, a technical offshoot of the Ad Hoc Committee. RCA, having demonstrated to the committee its system in Cincinnati, took the view, not unreasonably, that it was the only real contender.

However, at the last minute, International Business Machines (IBM) made a surprise bid. It had no technology at all to demonstrate to the committee, and the decision to enter the competition appears to have been an afterthought, despite the fact that it had in its employ none other than Joe Woodland. As it turned out, although he was involved in IBM’s submission, he was not the creator of its version of the Universal Bar Code. That fell to George Laurer, who, in his own view, had an advantage over his rivals because neither he nor IBM had given supermarket checkout systems or bar codes much thought and his company had no ready-made technology. Starting from scratch, Laurer had no prejudices about the appearance of the bar code, though his bosses had assumed it would be some version of the circular bull's-eye in Woodland’s patent and RCA’s pioneer system in Cincinnati.

Laurer was handed the specifications for a bar code that had been determined by the Symbol Selection Committee: it had to be small and neat, maximum 1.5 square inches; to save money it had to be printable with existing technology used for standard labels; it had been calculated that only ten digits were needed; the bar code had to be readable from any direction and at speed; there must be fewer than one in 20,000 undetected errors.

Although there was skepticism in IBM, Laurer was convincing enough to be given the go-head with a rectangular bar code. A division of IBM built a prototype scanner, and Laurer’s Universal Product Code was tested. "There were many skeptics in IBM," Laurer recalled, "not the least of whom was [his boss] B.O. Evans himself. However at the end of a flawless demonstration for Mr. Evans, we had our ace softball pitcher pitch beanbag ash trays, with symbols on the bottom, as fast as he could over the scanner. When each one read correctly, Mr. Evans was convinced."

​"What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal." -Albert Pike

​"​My father didn't tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.​" - Clarence Buddinton Kelland


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