The UPC is About to Celebrate a Birthday
I wanted to wish a happy early birthday to the UPC, commonly referred to erroneously (and redundantly) as the ‘UPC Code,’ which turns a year older this week.
The UPC, or universal product code, definitely looks good for its age.
While many of us only remember the UPC being around since the late 1980s, it turns out the little series of lines and numbers is much older than that.
My first job was as a cashier at a Kmart store. I started there in 1987, and by then, everything had those barcodes. We passed the code over a laser scanner and the cash register immediately returned the price. Most of the time, it was the correct price, which is an accomplishment in itself considering how many individual products (and thereby, individual barcodes) there are in a single department store.
But I’m also old enough to remember the days before computerized cash registers and scanning systems, when cash registers were rows of buttons operated by cashiers who had to rely on actual price tags.
I’m old enough to also remember my first time watching a cashier pass a product with a UPC over that scanner and being amazed when the register was actually able to recognize the item and immediately recall its price.
The UPC that made it possible is older than I am.
I hope you’re sitting down for this one.
It turns out that N. Joseph Woodland applied for the first patent on barcode technology on October 20, 1949. Woodland and Bernard Silver received the patent on October 7, 1952.
And from there, according to IBM’s Icons of Progress, there newly-patented invention sat unused for two decades.
It wasn’t until June 26, 1974, that the first product scanned for sale, a product of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum at a Marsh’s supermarket in Ohio.
And it wasn’t, as best I can recall, until well into the 1980s that I began seeing the scanners appearing in grocery stores in South Carolina.
The system is credited for lowering the costs of checking out customers and increasing the accuracy of the process, though we’re often reminded when a price comes up wrong of the computer industry phrase, “Garbage in, garbage out,” which is to say that a computer is only as accurate as its human programmers are.
In fact, these days, the UPC is so commonplace that we’re almost suspicious (and amused) by any store that doesn’t have a UPC scanner.
So I wish a happy 68th birthday to the series of marks, which appear to be in no danger of retirement anytime soon.