The Curious History of the Barcode


I spent my last two years in IBM in the Retail Industry Marketing group. During that assignment, IBM sold its 500,000th point-of-sale device, which averaged $6,000 each if memory serves me correctly.

Justification for these devices was their ability to scan barcodes, retrieve the price and store the data for sharing with suppliers who would replenish inventory. We knew the barcode itself had been developed within IBM. And as its co-inventor, George Laurer, just passed away a few days ago, HERE is the story of that innovation. 

Beep Beep: The History of George Laurer and the Barcode
How a 67-cent pack of Juicy Fruit, and a guy who said no, changed the way we shopped., Dec 10, 2019

History was made, and it cost 67 cents.

Forty-five years ago Clyde Dawson handed over a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum to checkout clerk Sharon Buchanan in the Marsh Supermarket in Troy, OH. It had just gone 8 AM. Dawson wasn’t any ordinary shopper — he was Marsh’s director of research and development — and this wasn’t any ordinary day.

This was the first time the UPC barcode — the small black-and-white label we see on all the items we buy from stores — had been used in a commercial environment. Clyde Dawson was asked a year later whether he felt the implementation of barcode scanning in his stores was beneficial.

“Decidedly yes,” he said. “For a 14-item order, the manual system handles 45 customers per hour; the scanning system 51 — a 13% improvement in throughput.” It might not have been the most impassioned answer, but Dawson was prescient. Four decades on, barcodes dominate our lives. A 67 cent packet of gum has ballooned into an enormous industry, and five billion barcodes are scanned each and every day.

But how did we get to this point, and who was responsible for the UPC barcode? Read More