The Barcode Turns 42

June 26 marked the 42nd anniversary of the first-ever successful barcode scan in a supermarket. Few people realized at the time just how dramatically the technology would transform the retail industry, and it continues to inspire modern checkout solutions along with nearly every aspect of business today.

In 1952, two graduate students by the name of Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland patented their invention, a symbol featuring black lines with white spaces that can provide information about products at a checkout. This bar code was made commercially available in 1973 thanks to George J. Laurer’s Uniform Product Code (UPC) linear bar code. When Spectra-Physics, which is now part of Datalogic, developed the first bar code scanner and used it in 1974, the potential of this concept was unleashed with a vengeance. The first item to ever be scanned was a pack of Wrigley’s gum at an Ohio supermarket.

Reception Wasn’t Welcoming Initially

While barcodes were originally invented to make checkout faster, they are now used throughout not only in retail, but also logistics, manufacturing, and even health care to identify and classify products and provide data about them. It’s hard to believe that such an indispensible part of business was actually once predicted by analysts to be a spectacular failure.

That’s right—manufacturers and retailers were initially a bit skeptical of the whole thing and hesitant to invest in the scanners. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when mass merchandisers began to use bar code scanners to great success, that the rest of the retail industry caught on. In 1978, just 1 percent of American grocery stores used the scanners, but this figure had jumped to 33 percent by 1984. Their use grew exponentially, and now they continue to evolve and expand to keep up with the latest technology. Forty-two years later, it looks like bar code scanners are here to stay.

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