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The establishment of the Universal Product Code consisted of many steps and stages:

  1. Leading grocery retailers and manufacturers with the help of management consultants structured and guided the process.
  2. Checkout equipment manufacturers assisted in analyzing the benefits, proposed symbol technologies, and then created the equipment required to scan the symbol, and supported the equipment in the live store environments.
  3. At considerable expense grocery manufacturers and the printing and packaging industry redesigned the packaging on every product they produced.
  4. Grocery retailers gradually tested early scanning electronic checkout systems in stores to prove the systems worked and then became more assertive that their suppliers complied with the standard.
  5. Existing industry associations became involved in supporting the effort and new specific organizations were formed.

Many stories may be told by participants in each of these groups. Please link down through each session to learn little known details about what went on to establish what today is simply called "the barcode."

And if you were a participant in the introduction of scanning and would like to share some of your memories, please send an email to the Project Leader, Bill Selmeier. After a short validation process we will welcome your input.

Currently authenticated Contributors may log in at the bottom of this page

Ed Igler a Man behind the Barcodes at IBM

During the early 1970s IBM focused its computer marketing along industry lines. Often there was someone in the headquarters industry group with the title Industry Consultant. Their job was to be current with industry trends and educate management and the sales field about where information processing topics were going in that industry. In the Grocery Distribution industry that person was Ed Igler.

Ed accomplished much of the field eduction in an annual 3 to 5 day meeting where 30 or more of the larger Grocery accounts with installed IBM equipment met to discuss the industry. Each salesman gave a half hour presentation on the most significant information project at their customer. Since it was IBM practice with classes to assign two people to each hotel room, Ed quite cleverly matched the salesman in a way that promoted further conversation outside of class. For example, as the two largest grocery customers, the Safeway and Kroger sales people always shared a room.

Ed contributed education on overall industry trends and happenings. From 1970 to 1973 this predominently centered on the effort to standardize on a universal item code. He covered as best as anyone outside the actual Ad Hoc and other committees could know, the progress that had been made, what issues were being addressed, and what blocked progress. This meant very few IBM sales people were surprised talking with their customers.

How the first magnetically stripped plastic cards utilizing the Bar Code were developed at IBM IRD in Dayton, N.J.

After working for a Small Electronics Company called Taft Electro Systems in Woodbridge, N.J., I was hired on Aug 12, 1969 by IBM IRD (Information Records Division) in Dayton, N.J. to develop the first bar code digitally encoded plastic credit and ATM cards.

Lemelson - Con Artist or Inventor?

In my humble opinion, Jerome Lemelson was a con artist ranking up there with Charles Ponzi and Bernard Madoff. 1989 was the year that Lemelson started his attempt to get control over the U.P.C. Code and Symbol. Before I discuss my reasons for believing he was not an inventor but rather a gifted con man, I must say that the Lemelson Foundation has used some of his ill gotten riches to do some good. BTW, the Lemelson Foundation is a FOR-PROFIT foundation that holds the rights to his patents.

Jerome Lemelson was born July 1923 and died October 1997. His first patent was issued in 1953 for an incremental improvement to the propeller-beanie. He “Invented” a tube through which the wearer could blow on the propeller to make it turn. Apparently that taught him how the patent office worked and before he died he owned over 558 patents, some issuing after his death.

The patents that opened my eyes to his underhanded methods are those that he claimed dealt with scanning and with barcodes. They were #5,144,421, #5,119,205, #5,128,753, # 4,969,038. Although the earliest one was filed in 1989, he asserted that they all had claims that read on all barcodes, including those invented as early as 1949..

Managing with Store Level Data


Henry M. Steele
July 31, 2010

During the summer of 1974 the first IBM supermarket scanning system (3660) in the United States was installed at the Pathmark (Supermarkets General Corp.) store in South Plainfield, N.J. I managed the on-site IBM installation team, working with a similar SGC group. In addition to many preinstallation functions (e.g., front end modifications, check stand design, training of store personnel, measurement of various factors to determine costs and benefits, etc.), we worked with the IBM development lab to validate function in the 3660 hardware and software. Our application development work, both pre and post installation, focused on front end measurements to facilitate labor scheduling and the use of item movement data (e.g., store inventory replenishment, shelf allocation, shrink identification, direct store delivery control). We eagerly anticipated use of item movement data for merchandising analysis, but did not quantify any work in this area.

Early Grocery Store Level Efforts by IBM

The Transaction Recorder was an attempt to develop a mechanical register and is the earliest system I know that IBM worked on. In 1968 or earlier IBM worked on it but it was not sufficiently cost effective to become a product.

1968-1969 The 29SM (SM meant Store Machine) followed this and was developed in the San Jose plant and installed in a Safeway store in Fremont, California in 1969. The test was successful and the marketing division wanted to go to market. That was over ruled by the Development Division and Corporate because of coming store technology. The 29SM was based on an IBM 1130 processor and IBM OPD 632 systems for the keyboards. Products were coded in something similar to PLU numbers used later but tuned to enhance key performance

1969 - 1971 Development of a third store effort, known internally as "Pebble Beach" followed this in the San Jose Plant and was based on a System /3 processor. Unfortunately, development killed this when they learned about new microprocessor technology known internally as the Universal Controller. After this store systems development moved to Raleigh.

What we learned about people

Or rather how scanners could make huge profits for stores that converted from mechanical checkout to scanners. Well not really….

When developing the specifications for the barcode and symbol one had to determine what would be an acceptable undetected error rate (UDE). In order to do this a simple survey was made to determine the error rate made by checkers keying in the price of each item. Men were sent to the parking lots of several stores chosen at random. These men would offer a shopper leaving the market with a large basket of items, a small payment ($10 as I remember it) to allow them to check their items against the receipt. What they found was that there was usually one or more errors in every one hundred items sold. Not surprising was that most of the errors were in the customer’s favor; I guess those in the store’s favor were caught by the customer and corrected.

It was reasoned that if a scanning system had less than 1 UDE in 1,000 items that the result would result in a modest gain for the market. The first time I was briefed on the specification orally I was told that to be safe, the UDE specification was raised to 1 UDE in 10,000 scans but when I received the written criterion it had again been changed upward to 1 UDE in 20,000 scans.

Before making our proposal to the Symbol Selection Committee, Dave Savir made an in depth mathematical model of my barcode & symbol. One of the conclusions in his published paper was one would expect a UDE of less than 1 in 100,000. WOW! I was overjoyed.

Where Did the Mirrored Bars for the Barcode Symbol on Aluminum Cans Come From?

After the announcement of the IBM 3660 U.P.C. Barcode Scanning System on October 11, 1973 and through 1974 one of my responsibilities was to encourage the Source Marking of the symbol. One of several activities to accomplish this was a series of Seminars for Grocery Manufacturers, and people in the Printing and Packaging industries designed to reduce the fear of problems with the tightly prescribed definitions for the edges of bars, etc. At the same time we could point out other significant parts of the complete Symbol Specification that might not be getting the attention it needed. These seminars were very popular. Our briefing room which might handle 6 to 12 people for a Grocery Retailer briefing would be reconfigured classroom style and used to handle 30 - 40 Manufacturer Packaging related attendees.

One of the specification parts sometimes overlooked was the color guidance near the back of the book. Grocery scanners being Helium-Neon lasers were red light. Users were counseled to view symbols under a Kodak Wratten #26 filter. We had been shown red bars on a white milk carton and black bars on a green package of gum. Red on white will look all white and black on green looks all black in red light.

Recollections of The Early Days of UPC

These are a few memories of experiences I had during the late sixties and early seventies. I hope you enjoy it...

George T. Reed
Graphic Superintendent (1961-1989)
Westvaco Corporation
Newark, Delaware

The Early Days of UPC

The earliest known effort to identify grocery products by numbers began in 1932. Wally Flint, a student at Harvard University wrote a master?s thesis, The Universal Product Code (UPC) describing a numbered metal tag on grocery products. His thesis was the beginning of the ?bar code.?

In the early 1960's a representative of IBM, located at Research Triangle, North Carolina, was browsing through the Harvard library and happened to notice Wally Flint?s thesis. The procedure came to life with the development of IBM's modern grocery check-out counter and several other manufacturer?s hand-held (laser) scanners. Using this new technology, supermarkets could easily maintain inventory data and the check-out counters could be automated.

UPC Almost Did Not Happen.

At an early meeting of the Paperboard Packaging Council (PPC) in Washington, D.C., the plant manager of Weyerhauser (a carton printing company in Pennsauken, New Jersey) said his plant printed millions of milk cartons daily by flexography (rubber plates with raised images). He stated they could not print the UPC and maintain the straight lines and spaces required because the rubber flexography plates would deform under printing pressure.

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