UPC Barcode celebrates 40th Birthday

George Joseph Laurer developed the Universal Product Code in 1973.  As an engineer at IBM he was asked to develop the pattern used for the Universal Product Code.

A 36-year veteran of the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) who retired in June 1987, George Laurer is the holder of 25 patents. He is also the author of 20 published Technical Disclosure Bulletins.

During his career, IBM recognized and rewarded him for many technical innovations. He received the prestigious “Raleigh, N.C. Inventor of the Year” award in 1976. In 1980 he was honored with IBM’s Corporate Technical Achievement award for his work on the Universal Product Code proposal that was issued in 1970 by McKinsey & Co. and Uniform Grocery Product Code Council, Inc.

Before joining IBM, he received the B.S. in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland in 1951. He came to the University after having served in World War II and attending a technical school to learn radio and TV repair. Upon completion of his first year at the technical school, his instructor convinced him that he should not continue that course of study, but that he should go to college.

The Barcode was first used commercially in 1966, however there needed to be some standards set in order for it to be universally used.

About 1970 McKinsey & Co. (a consulting firm) in conjunction with UGPCC (Uniform Grocery Product Code Council, a corporation formed by the grocery industries leading trade associations) defined a numeric format for product identification. A request was made to many companies to make a proposal of a code, a symbol incorporating the code, and specifications for both. The request went to Singer, National Cash Register, Littion Industries, RCA, Pitney-Bowes, IBM and many others large and small.

Most of the other companies had optical codes and scanning equipment in the market place already. IBM did not. Therefore, in 1971 George Laurer was given the task by IBM management to design the best code and symbol suitable for the grocery industry.

After considerable effort he conceived an approach and detailed the symbol. Two other men then worked with him to theoretically calculate the readability and to write IBM’s formal proposal to the industry.

They submitted three proposals, each with minor changes requested by UGPCC. One was to extend the capacity to eleven digits, and another was to design a “zero suppressed” version.

All contenders were asked to demonstrate their equipment and have it evaluated by Battelle Memorial Institute. Laurer was very instrumental in the design of the equipment and received several patents describing the methods they used in “finding”, decoding, and error correction.

In May of 1973, IBM’s proposal was accepted. The only changes made by UGPCC was the type font used for the human readable and the ink contrast specification.

The UGPCC migrated to the U.P.C. symbol set or Universal Product Code, which is still used throughout the US and Canada. (The EAN, a variation of the UPC is used in other parts of the world) Because of this, George J. Laurer is considered the inventor of UPC or Uniform Product Code, which was invented in 1973.

The first UPC barcode scanner was installed in Troy, Ohio in June 1974 and the first product to have a barcode printed on the product was a pack of Wrigley’s Gum.

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