The Road to the UPC
First Steps

It took the cooperation of thousands of people to create the UPC, Universal Product Code, but still there were a few that made significant individual contributions. This will document several of the key persons who changed the way the world shops. Lots of historians like to start with Wally Flint who in the 1930s, wrote a thesis at Harvard proposing that customers could select an 80 column card representing a product for sale and the items would be delivered to the front of the store to be purchased. I doubt that concept ever was close to being viable. And, it turned out, no one we know now has ever personally seen the thesis.

The first step towards the eventual UPC occurred around the end of the 1940s. A grocery executive approached the Engineering College at Drexel University requesting the development of automating product identification at checkout. The University did not accept the challenge, but a graduate student, Bernard Silver, overheard the request and related it to his friend Joe Woodland. Together they decided to take on the challenge.

Patent 2612994img1Joe tells the story about dragging his hand through sand and realizing that varying the width of the lines could encode numbers much like a Morse Code. In October 1949 he and Bernard filed a Patent Application for a “Classifying Apparatus & Method.” Patent 2612994 was issued in 1952, the original patent for a true barcode. It defined the characteristics of optical barcodes and went on to additionally make it circular or the bulls-eye shape. Eventually in 1992, Joe was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George H. W. Bush for the invention of barcodes.

Woodland and Silver Proof of Concept

That same year, 1952, Joe created a “proof of concept” experimental system and installed it in the backroom of a Colonial Grocery Store in Atlanta, GA. Joe and Bernard had created what was to become popularly known as the bulls-eye symbol but hardly anyone noticed. Eventually they were able to get $15,000 for it from Philco. Joe went to work for IBM who was not interested in the patent at that time and unfortunately Bernard Silver only lived about 10 years longer.  Joe passed in December 2012.

Patent 2612994The symbol went unused for decades with no application but with one optional characteristic that everyone who thought about it considered indispensable: It was inherently omnidirectional. Scanning Campbell Soup at Colonial Store testAnyone who looks at the items on the checkstand sees that they are commonly oriented in many different directions. The bulls-eye symbol strikes everyone as the clear choice, because clearly items can be scanned from any direction and deliver the same result.

Joe in IBM Store Systems Demonstration Room

Early interest in automation in the 1960s