top of page

Birth of The Now Ubiquitous Barcode

On 26 June 1974, at 8:01 am, a supermarket in the small Ohio town of Troy was the site of what would prove to be a seismic event in the world of commerce – the scanning of the first ever barcode label.

The Universal Product Code (UPC) was the brainchild of Norman Woodland and was inspired by his childhood training in Morse code in the Boy Scouts. Woodland was first struck by “inspiration” while sketching lines in the sand on a Florida beach in 1948, said The Smithsonian.

The first item marked with the Universal Product Code (UPC) being scanned in Ohio
The first item marked with the Universal Product Code (UPC) was scanned at the checkout of Troy's Marsh Supermarket | Yale University Press

Working with Bernard Silver, a fellow graduate from Philadelphia’s Drexel Institute, Woodland came up with a code that could be printed on retail product packaging and scanned at checkouts. The pair obtained a US Patent for their invention in 1952 – but it would be another two decades before IBM developed the necessary technology to introduce barcodes to grocery stores.

The scanning of the first barcode label at Troy’s Marsh Supermarket was something of a “ceremonial occasion”, said the magazine. The night before, a team of staff had put barcodes on hundreds of items at the store, while the National Cash Register installed the necessary scanners and computers.

The first shopper to have a barcode label scanned was Clyde Dawson, then head of research and development for Marsh Supermarket. He selected from his basket a multipack of Wrigley’s gum, and later revealed that it wasn’t a random choice.

There had been doubts that a bar code could be printed on an item as small as a pack of gum, but Wrigley found a solution. The company’s “ample reward was a place in American history”, said the magazine.

bottom of page