If you ran a supermarket in say 1960 then you had a problem. The number of different consumer goods kept increasing but how could you accurately price every item at checkout? Even the best checkout clerk could only remember a limited number of prices so most items had to have price stickers – but stickering every item was time consuming and labour intensive. If a price changed then all the units in stock had to be restickered. This was the problem that Samuel Friedland, the head of the Food Fair supermarket chain in Philadelphia, took to the Drexel Technical Institute in 1948; how can we automate the grocery checkout process? The Dean of the Institute was unable to help but a 23 year old graduate student, Bernard Silver, overhead the request and it fascinated him. He discussed it with a lecturer in Mechanical Engineering, Norman Woodland. Together they decided that they could crack this problem.
Woodland had learnt Morse Code when he was in the Boy Scouts and he wondered if the same principle of dots and dashes could be used to encode product information. While at the beach, he drew dots and dashes in the sand similar to the shapes used in Morse code. He pulled them downwards with his fingers, making thin lines from the dots and thick lines from the dashes. Thus he conceived the idea of the bar code. “I just extended the dots and dashes downwards and made narrow lines and wide lines out of them,” Woodland said in a Wonders of Modern Technology article.
He and Silver applied for a patent in October 1949. In October 1952 they were granted a patent for ‘Classifying Apparatus and Method’ covering both linear and circular bull’s-eye printing designs. Unfortunately the technology to read barcodes was not available and nor was it easy to develop. Woodland and Silver sold the patent for $15000. It was sold on to RCA who could not successfully commercialise it before it expired in 1969. Silver was killed in a car crash in 1963 at the age of 38. In 1971 Woodland, working now for IBM, developed the Universal Product Code which was adopted as a standard. Norman Woodland died at the age of 91 in 2012 by which time the use of bar codes was ubiquitous.
The first item scanned at a real supermarket checkout with a UPC code was a packet of Wrigley’s chewing gum in Ohio in 1974. Today, the system is used around the world in retail, industrial, warehousing and medical fields to store and retrieve information. Almost every item you buy in a shop carries a bar code. The system is essential for retailers and leads to accurate stock control and faster processing. This means lower costs for retailers and customers.
A number of innovation lessons can be drawn from the Bar Code story. First, the innovation was triggered by a real problem – how to automate a common but difficult problem for retailers. Secondly, the solution was based on reworking a simple idea. Samuel Morse had invented his code in the 1840s as a means of communicating message over a telegraph line. Woodland adapted the idea so that the serial electrical or sound signals became a visual linear code. Thirdly many elements of the full solution to the problem were initially unavailable to Silver and Woodland but that did not deter the visionaries from pursuing their innovation. Finally, it can take a very long time for a technical innovation to gain the systems and infrastructure to make it fully viable but great ideas will eventually win through and change the world.