First Use Of A Universal Product Code (UPC) (June 26, 1974)

Sharon Buchanan, a cashier at the Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio, scanned the world’s first Universal Product Code (better known as a barcode) on a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum. Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland had patented a bullseye shaped machine-readable code in 1949, but the UPC that was adopted by the Ad Hoc Committee of the Universal Product Identification Code was developed by a team of IBM engineers under George Laurer. The standard rectangular design measures approximately 1.5” x 0.9” and is made up of black bars and white spaces that represent a sequence of numbers unique to the item it is printed on.

The code was to be read by a scanner using a laser beam as a source of light. The black bars would absorb light, while the white space reflected it back to the scanner. The intensity of the reflected light would then be read, and the unique pattern would be deciphered by a computer that would provide pricing information and adjust the stock database to reflect the sale. Such equipment was costly, however, and this meant that the UPC was not widely used by retailers until the 1980s.

The checkout equipment used for the first reading of a UPC was built and installed by National Cash Register, a company that was based in Ohio. The selection of a packet of Wrigley’s gum by the first customer, Clyde Dawson from the research and development department of Marsh Supermarket, was not a coincidence. Despite having many other items in his basket he picked the chewing gum to demonstrate that it was possible to print a barcode on small items. One of the Juicy Fruit packets from the supermarket is now held by the Smithsonian Museum.

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