Little Bits of History

June 26

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 26, 2017

1974: A Universal Product Code (UPC) is scanned at a retail outlet. A UPC is barcode symbology used in the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, throughout Europe, and some other countries. It is used for tracking trade items in stores. It is actually UPC-A and is a 12 digit code uniquely assigned to each trade item. European Article Number (EAN) aka International Article Number uses the same methodology. Both are overseen by the GS1 headquartered in Brussels, Belgium and Princeton, New Jersey. The standards allow for point of sale automation and are being broadened into other areas as well, such as pricing for health care.

Wallace Flint first proposed an automated system in 1932 which used punch cards. This method was even patented in 1949. It did not catch on. In the 1960s the railroads attempted another multicolor barcode system to track rail cars, but this was also abandoned. A group of grocery industry trade associations formed the Uniform Grocery Product Code Council  (today GS1-US) and partnered with Larry Russell and Tom Wilson to define the numerical format to be used. They partnered with several different technology firms who also offered opinions on the best way to code products. The Symbol Selection Committee chose a version which included readability for humans. Today, GS1-US has over 300,000 members from 25 different industries using the UPC system.

In late 1969, IBM assigned George Laurer to figure out how to make a supermarket scanner and label. Finding the right characters per inch took time and problems with ink spread were also an issue. Too much or too little ink caused errors. RCA was also working on the issue and developed numbers to be scanned with a straight line laser scanner, but readability was too large. The problem attracted scientists from around the world and a race to make a workable system ensued. Moving away from a circular bull’s eye type arrangement to a linear arrangement with different lines and numbers helped solve the problem. The solution was found and implementation was the next big hurdle.

Product manufactures need to procure a unique number for each of their products. Global standards allow for maintaining the uniqueness of each UPC code. Product packaging then had to be created to include the code so scanners would be able to use computers to look up the product and assign the pricing to the register. On this day, Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio began scanning groceries. The first product (from the entire shopping cart) to be scanned was a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum which rang up at 67 cents. Clyde Dawson was the customer and Sharon Buchanan was the cashier who began the sale at 8.01 AM. The gum went on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

Ever consider what pets must think of us? I mean, here we come back from a grocery store with the most amazing haul – chicken, pork, half a cow. They must think we’re the greatest hunters on earth! – Anne Tyler

The biggest thing you can do is understand that every time you’re going to the grocery store, you’re voting with your dollars. Support your farmers’ market. Support local food. Really learn to cook. – Alice Waters

I’m a terrible grocery shopper. I hardly ever do it. And if I do, there’s never more than three things in the bag. – Seth Meyers

You’ve got bad eating habits if you use a grocery cart in 7-Eleven. – Dennis Miller