This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

Scan It!



June 26, 1974:   

 First Commercial Use of the BarcodeYIL

On June 26, at a Marsh Supermarket in Ohio, a computer connected to a laser reader reads a Barcode. The system identified the item and automatically gave the price.  Clyde Dawson buys a 10-pack (50 sticks) of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum for 67 cents. Cashier Sharon Buchanan makes the first UPC scan. That pack of gum today is on display at the Smithsonian.


A Brief History

A Philadelphia supermarket executive asks the dean of the Drexel Institute of Technology to research a means of capturing product data at checkout.  A graduate student named Bernard Silver overhears the conversation.  He enlists a colleague, N. Joseph Woodland, to solve the problem. Woodland leaves Drexel to devote himself to the cause.

Woodland and Silver

Woodland and Silver

One day, while living in Miami with his grandfather, Woodland has a breakthrough at the beach. “I poked my four fingers into the sand and for whatever reason pulled my hand toward me and drew four lines.  I said, ‘Golly! Now I have four lines, and they could be wide lines and narrow lines instead of dots and dashes.’”  Morse code expressed visually.

On October 7, Woodland and Silver receive U.S. Patent 2,612,994. The diagram is a bull’s eye with a pattern of thick and thin bands. Later that year, Woodland and Silver sell their patent to Philco for $15,000.

U.S. Patent 2,612,994

U.S. Patent 2,612,994

$15,000 may seem like a drop in the bucket, considering the ultimate significance of the invention.  But “the first scanner that could read barcodes, and thus make their invention commercially feasible, wasn’t introduced until 1974, long after their patent had expired,” notes Edward Tenner.


On August 23, IBM scientist Hans Peter Luhn receives U.S. Patent 2,950,048 for the Luhn algorithm, a software code that catches common errors in scanning the numerical sequences used in credit cards and government IDs.


Dutch mathematician Jacobus Verhoeff develops the Verhoeff algorithm, another (and more sophisticated) code essential to error detection. In November, John F. Keidel, on behalf of General Atronics, receives U.S. Patent 3,479,519 for a barcode-reading scanner.

“The unsung heroes of the barcode are the people who developed the computer algorithms that sharply reduce the number of errors from transposed digits,” Tenner

Algorithm:  a procedure for solving a mathematical problem (as of finding the greatest common divisor) in a finite number of steps that frequently involves repetition of an operation; broadly: a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing some end especially by a computer.

Logicon writes the Universal Grocery Products Identification Code.  Monarch Marking is the first American company to produce barcode equipment featuring UGPIC for retail use.  A British company, Plessey Telecommunications, is the first to make equipment featuring UGPIC for industrial use.

Alan Haberman, CEO of the New England supermarket chain First National Stores, chairs the industry committee that chooses the UPC barcode over other contenders (“circles, bull’s-eyes and seemingly random agglomerations of dots,” reports the New York Times).

It resembles the black-and-white rectangle we all know today.  The design was developed by IBM engineer George J. Laurer. Providing input on the project was none other than the original inventor: Woodland himself, who had taken a job at IBM back in 1951.  He stayed there until his retirement in 1987.

On June 26, at a Marsh Supermarket in Ohio, Clyde Dawson buys a 10-pack (50 sticks) of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum for 67 cents. Cashier Sharon Buchanan makes the first UPC scan. And as mentioned before, that pack of gum today is on display at the Smithsonian.

Sharon Buchanan

Sharon Buchanan

On Innovation

“As an undergraduate, Woodland perfected a system for delivering elevator music efficiently,” notes the Times. “His system, which recorded 15 simultaneous audio tracks on 35-millimeter film stock, was less cumbersome than existing methods.”  When it came to elevator music, Woodland improved on an existing innovation; when it came to the barcode, other engineers made key improvements to his invention.


Current Types of Barcodes



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