Once upon a time, before an invention called the barcode, shopping used to be a tedious waltz of price-stickering, keying-in, and a lot of guessing. Back in the day, local guessers, if adept at their craft, could end up playing a regional guessing game. Quite the promotion, isn’t it?
However, the dance changed on June 26, 1974, when a supermarket cashier, Sharon Buchanan, in Troy, Ohio, passed a multipack of Wrigley’s chewing gum across a Datalogic barcode scanner. It marked the debut performance of the Universal Product Code (UPC), changing the choreography of retail forever.
The journey to this revolutionary performance had its fair share of twirls and spins. In the beginning, we had Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland, two Drexel University graduate students, who in 1948 began working on a system to track inventory. Their initial approach involved using ink designs that would illuminate when exposed to ultraviolet light. But alas, the glow was expensive and didn’t last. Rather like my uncle’s fourth marriage.
It took a relaxing day at the beach for Woodland to elongate Morse code dots and dashes into vertical lines and bars. In a moment of beachside brilliance, the barcode was born, readable from nearly any angle. However, the dance wasn’t over just yet. Their contraption required a hot 500-watt bulb and a photomultiplier tube, making it too big, too hot, and entirely impractical.
Over the years, the design changed, patents were sold, and other companies tried their hand at barcodes. However, it wasn’t until 1973 that the supermarket industry settled on a laser-reader system developed by IBM. In 1974, after much testing, the first commercial performance took place in Troy, Ohio. Shopper Clyde Dawson picked up a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum, and cashier Sharon Buchanan made the first UPC scan, ringing up a historic 67 cents.
Today, the humble barcode, once a novelty, is an essential part of our world. It tracks inventory, consumer preferences, and even animals in research. It’s used by rental-car companies, airlines, shippers, NASA, and even fashion houses. It’s as much a part of our daily life as a morning cup of coffee.
The day a pack of chewing gum was scanned is a day that revolutionized the retail industry. The once laborious dance of the retail world was replaced with a streamlined routine, all thanks to the humble barcode. So, here’s to June 26th, 1974, when a simple ‘beep’ made history. After all, as we all know, a good dance is all about timing and rhythm, and thanks to the barcode, the retail industry found its perfect beat.