30 August 2017

In the last part of the series, IBM joins the story, and the author of the original idea is a direct witness to the reincarnation of his invention, which is gradually conquering the world. Last part of the series.foto

At the beginning of the 1970s, an issue began to emerge which almost everyone meets these days. The previous part of our narrative left off when the barcode was in a “target” shape with concentric circles. (You can also read the introductory part of the series.)

Representatives of businessmen joined together in an ad hoc commission for a Universal Product Code. Its vision was clear: to create a clearly defined system using bar code product identification, which would be printed by all supermarket manufacturers on their packaging. The code would carry information about the nature of the product, its manufacturer and so on. Computers in stores would be able to “read” and further process the code, such as offering special offers or discounts.

While the idea was simple, putting it into practice was extremely challenging.

The producers were not completely on board. They had their own identification methods that they would have to change and perhaps the canneries did not want to print their codes on their cans. It took four years to arrive at a functional system that the industry would adopt.

Softball with Ashtrays

An unexpected move came at the last minute. International Business Machines aka IBM entered the game. They had no technology to present, absolutely nothing. They had just one person: Joe Woodland. However, he did not like their version of the code as George Laurer was responsible for it—the advantage was that neither he nor IBM had looked into barcodes yet and did not have any technology or solutions. They started from scratch and had no preconceptions or assumptions about how the barcode should look.

Laurer was given a simple assignment: a small and compact code of no more than ten square centimetres in order to save costs by being able to be printed by existing technologies; the necessity to have a maximum of ten digits; the code had to be readable from all directions and at all speeds, and finally the error rate had to be less than 1: 20,000.

There was scepticism at IBM, but Laureer’s rectangular code eventually got the green light. The first scanner came in, and the Universal Product Code went into the testing phase. This included a show where an elite softball pitcher threw ashtrays over the scanner with the printed code. When they were all read correctly, the bosses were satisfied.



And the Winner Is…

However, there was another tough nut to crack: to persuade a committee of businessmen who were under great pressure from RCA and their already tried and functioning circular solution. The commission even consulted with independent experts from MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The winner finally became Laureer’s rectangular barcode.

Woodland, who died in 2012 at the age of 91, saw with his own eyes how his Morse Code-inspired doodling in the sand in 1949 was reincarnated into a sophisticated form. It was an acceptable expensive scanner, which was able to read parallel black lines by the concentrated laser beam, and a microcomputer that was able to decode the information.

Like many other inventions, it took some time for the UPC barcode to catch on. The boom occurred when Kmart was the first big supermarket chain to implement it. The biggest boom in retail sales was recorded in the 1980s when it also transformed production: it began to appear literally on everything that needed a system for quick identification.

Certainly, the barcode actually supported merchants’ desire to speed up check-out at the cash registers. Yet its greatest contribution to business and industry lies in the statistics: clear data and an overview of what is being sold and what is not. Thanks to bar code, market research methods have changed, marketers have gained a clear idea of customer tastes and preferences, and manufacturers have been able to make production more efficient.

When the laser beam was born, many feared it would become a dreaded weapon. Instead, the whole world uses it today in handheld scanners, which read and record everything from chewing gum to medicines in hospitals and even new-borns.

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