THE BAR CODE SCANNER CELEBRATES ITS 40TH BIRTHDAY
A look at the evolution of the bar code industry since that fateful day on June 26, 1974, when the first successful bar code scan occurred in a supermarket
Over 60 years ago, two graduate students invented a symbol with black lines and white spaces used to provide product information at checkout. These students, Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland, are known for inventing the first bar code type product, patented in 1952. It was not until 1973 however, that the bar code took a form that could be commercially used with the invention of the UPC (Uniform Product Code) linear bar code by George J. Laurer. The UPC bar code provided a much simpler symbol to be decoded by the technology available at that time. In fact, after only one year, on June 26, 1974, the first bar code scanner, developed by Spectra-Physics, now a part of the Datalogic Group, was installed and used to scan a package of Wrigley’s chewing gum at Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio. When the price of the gum appeared on the cash register, the bar code industry was born.
Today we celebrate the 40th anniversary of this first bar code scan. Initially conceived to speed up checkout, bar codes are now a fundamental part of business and can be found in every industry, from retail to manufacturing to logistics and even healthcare. The symbol that identifies, classifies, and provides data for the product it is affixed to is so widespread and embedded in society that modern business could not function without it. Yet, there was a time, at the end of the 1970’s, when some analysts actually predicted the failure of this black and white symbol.
After the first bar code scan in 1974, skepticism on the part of manufacturers and retailers hindered progress of the bar code industry. Manufacturers weren’t sure how effective bar codes would be and the idea of investing what could sum up to millions of dollars in bar code technology just didn’t seem worth it at the time. Retailers, on the other hand, knew that bar codes would save them time and money, but input from consumers, who didn’t like the idea of buying an item without the price indicated directly on the package, weighed heavily on the decision to adopt bar codes. In 1978, less than one percent of grocery stores across the United States used bar code scanners.
In the beginning of the 80’s something happened that changed the seemingly dismal fate of the bar code. Mass merchandisers started using bar code scanners in their stores all across the United States with successful results. This sparked the interest of the entire retail industry, which started employing bar code scanners more and more. By 1984, 33% of stores in the United States were using bar code scanners. All the stores noted increased sales and time and cost savings with a very high return on investment.
Other industries started to follow suit and the use of bar code scanners grew at a dizzying rate. The automobile industry started to use scanners in manufacturing plants, airports employed them for baggage sorting, logistics centers put them into operation for tracking. The list goes on and on. As the use of bar code scanners increased, so did industry demand for bar code technology that could provide more information in less time and space. New forms of bar codes developed that put a massive amount of data in a smaller code and cordless scanners were created to send the information collected from the code directly to computers.