By Jill Puleri
These days when you check out of almost any retail store, nearly without notice or care, the checker passes your purchases under or above a laser and you hear a “bleep” as the laser picks up the product information from that strange looking set of black bars on each product. The name and price of the product then pops up on the register – and the register sends that data back over a network to a database for inventory processing and analysis. All this happens in an instant, all while you’re getting out your credit card, reading the latest scoop on a celebrity, or trying to keep your kids from adding more candy bars to the checkout belt.
Well, here’s something for you: The next time your son REALLY REALLY REALLY needs to have that pack of Juicy Fruit (he just can’t live without), you can pick up the package of gum in the familiar yellow wrapper and show him those crazy looking black bars and on the side and say: “Did you know that on June 26, 1974, the very first bar code – that’s what these lines are called – was swiped by cashier Sharon Buchanan at a Marsh’s supermarket in Troy, Ohio and that the first product swiped was a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum (you point to the gum)? Did you know that?” Your son will stop in his tracks, look at you with wonder, pause briefly, and probably say, with a slightly sarcastic tinge: “Mom, you should play Watson!” and continue adding candy to your order.
Oh well, you tried. It’s alright. But luckily for you, me, us, and the retail industry the bar code has made checking out quicker and more efficient, and made businesses around the globe smarter in the way they manage data-driven processes like inventory and customer service. With the advent of RFID tags you see popping up on clothing and other products, the bar code model is being extended even further – bringing it into the digital age.
Today, in recognition of those very facts, the National Inventors Hall of Fame announced it will induct retired IBMer Norman Joseph Woodland for his contribution to the invention of the Universal Product Code (UPC), a.k.a. the bar code. Woodland and his co-inventor, Bernard Silver, who also will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, were working at Drexel University when they applied for the first bar code technology patent on October 20, 1949. Woodland joined IBM in 1951 and received a patent for the UPC on October 7, 1952 – some 20 years before it showed up on that pack of Wrigley’s! (There’s another piece of trivia your son can chew on.)
For the full story about the birth and evolution of the bar code and much more, head over to the IBM100 site where IBM has been highlighting some of its achievements in recognition of its 100th anniversary this year.
Jill Puleri is IBM’s vice president and global industry leader. She leads IBM’s retail consulting practice and is an expert in multichannel and customer-centric strategies.
Wrigley’s®, Juicy Fruit® and all affiliated designs used courtesy of WM Wrigley Jr. Company.