In 1932 an interesting project was conducted by a small group of students headed by Wallace Flint at the Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration. The project proposed that customers select desired merchandise from a catalog by removing corresponding punched cards from the catalog. These punched cards were then handed to a checker who placed the cards into a reader. The system then pulled the merchandise automatically from the storeroom and delivered it to the checkout counter. A complete customer bill was produced and inventory records were updated. If you are reading this in the UK, maybe this sounds a lot like shopping at Argos.
Now jump forward to 1952. American inventors Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver were granted a US patent for a “Classifying Apparatus and Method.” This was described as “article classification through the medium of identifying patterns.” Does this sound familiar? We know those “identifying patterns” as barcodes.
An early use of this new technology was nothing to do with shopping. The Association of American Railroads sponsored a scheme in the 1960’s called KarTrak ACI (Automatic Car Identification). This involved placing colored stripes in various combinations on steel plates which were attached to the sides of railroad rolling stock. The stripes represented things like ownership, type of equipment, etc. They were read by a trackside scanner as the car moved past. This project lasted about ten years.
Meanwhile, the benefits of barcodes were recognized by the retail industry, particularly companies like Kroger and Monarch. The potential was clear. Also in the 1960’s, a helium neon laser was introduced to scan the barcodes, which, over time, became refined into the black lines we’re familiar with today.The laser interprets the width of the black lines, each of which corresponds to a number. Any string of numbers of any length can be scanned against a database of inventory, sales and purchases. Today we use a standard 11 digit code which identifies the product. This is now known as the UPC – the Universal Product Code.
I know you’re wondering what the first product was, to be bought using a barcode. I can tell you. It was on June 26, 1974 – and it was a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum.