If you visit any retail shop on a regular basis, you’re most likely well acquainted with the UPC barcodes on the back of product packaging. In fact, barcodes are some commonplace, we may overlook the significance and value of this technology that keeps our retail economy humming, with the ‘beep, beep, beep’ from the barcode scanner.
Most retailers – from grocery stores to big-box superstores – depend on UPC barcodes to track items in their stores, reduce human error and speed the transaction process with customers. “UPC” stands for Universal Product Code and is a 1D (linear) code with the typical ‘picket fence’ style most people are familiar with. This type of barcode is commonly used in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and other countries. The most common form, the UPC-A, consists of 12 numerical digits, which are uniquely assigned to each trade item.
History of the UPC
The beginnings of the UPC barcode kicked off in 1932 when Harvard business student Wallace Flint wrote about a punched card system in his master’s thesis, where each card represented a product in the store. Unfortunately, it did not catch on.
Later in 1970, a group of grocery industry trade associations formed the Uniform Grocery Product Code Council to define the numerical format of the Uniform Product Code. Technology firms, including names you might recognize like IBM and RCA, proposed alternative symbol representations to the council, many of whom had been working on the barcode technology for decades. In the end, the council chose a slightly modified version of the IBM proposal, developed by IBM’s George Laurer, giving it the name we use today. Laurer is now considered the inventor of the UPC.
Pop quiz: The first UPC-marked item ever scanned at a retail checkout was a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit in 1974 at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio. The pack of gum is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
Creative Uses for the Barcode
Today, FedEx is one of the world’s largest users of the barcode. Yet over the years, there have been many creative uses for the barcode, including the following:
They are also used to keep track of rental cars, airline luggage and even nuclear waste. Barcoded tickets allow attendees to enter sporting events, movie theaters, fairgrounds and public transportation.
Based on enthusiastic adoption around the world, barcodes such as the UPC have become a universal element of the modern world. While other systems have entered the automatic identification and data capture (AIDC) market, the simplicity, universality and low cost of barcodes have remained a standard in the retail industry over 40 years after the introduction of the first commercial barcode. They have also paved the way for related technologies including RFID and QR codes.