This Will Make You Feel Old: Bar Code Scanning Just Turned 40

Get a flaming cake out and take a deep breath, party people, because it’s time to feel old: The Universal Product Code was first put into use only 40 years ago, when a $0.67 10-pack of Wrigley’s gum was scanned by a cashier at an Ohio grocery store on June 26, 1974. Yes, bar codes have only been on the things we buy for 40 years.

Before the design by IBM engineer George Laurer was first put into use, grocery stores had to change out price tags every time the cost of something fluctuated, and input prices by hand when customers were checking out, notes CBC News.

Those blocks of black lines and numbers has spawned many offshoots — including 2D QR codes — in industries around the world for uses that reach far beyond paying for a pack of gum.

“I did not even envision that happening,” Laurer told CBC News. “It was designed for the grocery industry. It proved that bar codes … were the way to go.”

That 10-pack of gum is now on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, as well as one of the first 10 scanners used at that supermarket.

It wasn’t the first bar code ever invented, however — that honor goes to a bull’s-eye bar code created out of the need for an automatic checkout system. That one never caught on, so IBM turned the job over to Laurer and asked him to design a standardized bar code.

In order to make sure the bar code wouldn’t smudge on the printing presses of the day, Laurer made his design so that any smears would only lengthen the code’s bars, which wouldn’t interfere with scanners trying to read it.

Happy birthday, bar code. You don’t look a day over 0 0204 9273 4.

Bar code turns 40: Next-generation codes move past grocery stores [CBC News]