On June 26, 1974, a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum was swiped over a scanner at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio, thus becoming the first retail item to have its price “rung up” automatically thanks to its black-lined bar code.
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It had taken some time to arrive, considering that the idea and some of the technology for bar codes had been patented by Bernard Silver and N. Joseph Woodland more than 20 years earlier. But it would take the efforts of others, in particular supermarket executive Alan Haberman – who, like Silver and Woodland, was Jewish – to get the industry to agree on a standard technology and admit it into service.
The first step took place in 1948 at Drexel Institute of Technology (today Drexel University), Philadelphia. One of the deans was showing around a visitor, the president of a local grocery chain, who suggested that the school assign some students to develop an automated inventory and checkout system for the nation’s supermarkets.
Bernard Silver (1924-1963), a graduate student in engineering, overheard the conversation and shared its contents with his friend, Norman Joseph Woodland, also a graduate student and a lecturer in mechanical engineering at Drexel.
Born in Atlantic City, Woodland (1921-2012) had served as a technical assistant on the Manhattan Project, prior to getting his bachelor’s degree at Drexel. Before turning his attention to bar codes, he had developed a sophisticated system for delivering music to elevators, but had been discouraged from marketing it in his hometown by his father, who was convinced that the elevator-music racket in Atlantic City was controlled by organized crime.
Woodland was sufficiently intrigued by the automated-inventory idea that he and Silver took up the challenge. Woodland took leave from Drexel and moved south for several months to Miami Beach, where his grandparents had an apartment and he could stay rent free.
Remembering the Morse Code he had learned as a Boy Scout, Woodland began drawing lines short and long in the sand, as he developed a method for converting the unique number given to every item being tracked into graphic images.
Initially, the data was encoded in concentric circles comprising a bull’s eye. But for reasons of printing clarity, that was later dropped for the horizontal lines of varying thickness we know today.
Woodland and Silver applied for a patent in 1949, and received it on October 7, 1952; the patent was granted for both the bull’s eye and linear versions. Almost immediately they sold the patent to Philco for $15,000, which then resold it to RCA. But it wouldn’t be until the 1970s that lasers – used to scan the bar codes – existed, and that a digital-image sensor had been designed that wasn’t unwieldy in size and cost, so that it could be installed in stores nationwide.
Silver died at 38 of complications related to leukemia, but Woodland remained involved with the project during his employment at IBM, where he worked from 1951 until his retirement.
Once IBM perfected the technology, it fell to Haberman to convince his colleagues in the business to agree to adopt the technology as the industry standard. According to Stephen A. Brown, author of a book about the history of the bar code, Haberman achieved his goal during a San Francisco meeting of his committee. The final night, he took his fellow executives out for an expensive meal, and then followed it with a screening of the porn film “Deep Throat” as the evening’s cultural repast. Soon afterward, in April 1973, the committee voted unanimously to accept the IBM system.
The first trial took place at a Marsh supermarket in Troy. All of the items in the day’s first shopping cart were marked with bar codes, but the Juicy Fruit was the first to be picked up by the checkout clerk. Today, that same 10-pack of chewing gum is on display at the National Museum of American History, in Washington.