Happy Birthday Barcode!

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Forty years ago, a pack of Wrigley’s gum became the first item to be scanned and purchased using what is now used 5 billion times every day: the Universal Product Code barcode. Since then, barcode and scanning technologies have become an integral part of the entire supply chain industry, and have continued to evolve.

Sharon Buchanan was just another cashier hard at work at a supermarket in Ohio on 26 June 1974, when a group of gentlemen asked her if she could help them with a project they had been working on. Buchanan had no clue that she would be the first cashier in history to swipe and scan the Universal Product Code on an item – or hear the iconic ‘beep’.

“They just grabbed me and said ‘Come here!’, she recalled last week at a celebration of the historic anniversary. The pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum was selected as the first item scanned because it was one of the few products featuring the newly developed UPC bar code.

For several years previously the US grocery store industry had been pushing for the development of an automatic checkout system. This would necessarily require a standardised product coding system that could be scanned. The first one to be developed was actually circular in shape and called the bulls-eye. Despite successful testing it did not catch on because many printing presses of the time could not reproduce it without smudging.

IBM tasked engineer George Laurer with creating a better solution. In 1973, an industry panel chose Laurer’s linear design – the one we know today – over seven others as the new standard for identifying products. The following year it led to that first supermarket scan. It was the beep that launched a technology revolution.

Happy birthday barcode!

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