The first barcode was drawn on the sand by the inventor Joe Woodland at Miami Beach. It took a long time to bring his vision to life and inundate the world. This is the first part of the story of this extraordinarily important little thing.
The end of June saw 43 years since the first practical use of the barcode, the sets of lines of various widths accompanying each step.
Whenever anyone remembers this historical connection, the small town of Troy in the district of Miami, Ohio, comes to mind. It captured the attention of the business world for a few weeks because Ohio was home to the company the National Cash Register, which supplied cash registers to the stores. The city of Troy was also the headquarters of the Hobart Corporation, which dealt with developing and producing scales for bulk products such as meat.
And it was precisely here, shortly after eight o’clock in the morning of June 26, 1974: the cash register of the Marsh supermarket read the product information using its Universal Product Code (UPC) for the first time in history.
It was a moment to celebrate and a bit of a ritual. There had been a rush of activity in the supermarket the night before that historic morning, when its staff glued bar codes to hundreds of different products in the racks, and cash registers and related computer equipment were installed by technicians from the National Cash Register.
The first “shopper” was Clyde Dawson, head of Research and Development at Marsh supermarket, when Sharon Buchanan “served” the innovator using a new way of handling purchases.
This much is known.
The next part is a bit of an urban legend. According to Dawson, he put a lot of things in his shopping cart as a “shopper” and he picked up a ten-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum from the pile. As Dawson later said, it was not a random choice: he picked the larger package deliberately, because at that time no one knew if the barcode could be placed on anything as small as a small package of five slices of chewing gum. The Wrigley Company had resolved this issue, going down into (not only) American history.
Chewing gum in the museum
After the barcode was fixed onto the ten-pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum, the price was displayed as 67 cents. Today, this iconic item of Dawson’s purchase can be seen at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.
Woodland himself said it sounds like a fairy tale: the idea of what later became a barcode was born in Miami Beach. He drew the first “sketch” with his finger in the sand on the beach. However, the intention was clear: he was trying to figure out a code that could be used to mark goods in stores that could be read easily by cash registers. He wanted both to speed up the queues, while simplifying an overview of the inventory.
Yet, the idea for the need for such a technology did not spring from his head. The conservative chief of a supermarket urged the Dean of the Drexel Institute of Technology (today’s Drexel University) in Philadelphia to figure out how people could go through crowded cash registers faster, as continuous delays and inventories hurt profits.
He failed to make an impression on the dean and was brushed off. However, the conversation was heard by a post-graduate student named Bernard Silver who became interested in it. He mentioned it to his classmate Woodland, who graduated from Drexel in 1947. He had been involved with inventions before, and he found the concept interesting. He decided to pursue it further.
He was so sure he was able to solve the supermarket problem that he left his postgraduate studies in the winter of 1948 and went to live with his grandfather in Miami Beach. He was broke but his grandfather had some savings and lent his grandson some money to establish himself. The idea was born on Woodland Beach in January 1949. However, its genius and the far-reaching consequences for the functioning of the modern world only came to be appreciated by mankind many years later.
What inspired Woodland? Morse code. He had learnt it in his youth as a scout. While he sat in a beach chair wondering how to help supermarkets with long queues, Samuel Morse’s alphabet came to mind. I remember thinking about dots and dashes while I buried my fingers with my hands in the sand, and for some reason, I don’t know why, I drew my hand to me. I left three or four furrows in the sand. I said to myself, ‘Wow, I could use wide lines and narrow lines and they could replace the dots and dashes of Morse Code. That could help me solve the darned thing. And then, just a second later, I was twisting my four fingers, still deep in the sand, and a circle appeared. So, was it the parallel lines or the circle that preceded the barcode? And how did Woodland and Silver come up with a way to read it? You will find out in the second part of our series.