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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.

In this (PPC) meeting I made the suggestion, "why not put a 'barrier' around the symbol which would protect the lines". Using a border around the symbol would relieve the pressure on the delicate lines in the bar-code and maintain the precise width and spacing. For aesthetic reasons, I also suggested "rounding off" the corners of the border. The concept was accepted and bar codes could be accurately printed on milk cartons.

Subsequently other ?flexo-printed? plastic bags, potato chips, etc., began using the border around the bar code. Without this border, plastic bags could have not been printed with a machine-readable bar-code. Now that milk cartons and plastic bags could be encoded with the UPC, it was practical to encode the other products in a grocery store and the concept moved into general use. Over time the technology for both scanning and printing has improved and this border is not as common as it was, but without it UPC would probably not have been implemented.

Origin of the term "Bar Code"

At a PPC meeting (STAC #1) at Schawk Graphics, (North Kedzie Ave., Chicago, IL) we were given the responsibility to "write a book on UPC". We began by describing the components of the symbol and there was some discussion about what to call the "lines" in the symbol. I said we could not use the term "lines" as "line art" was already a printing term.

I suggested these "stripes" should be called "bars". The symbol became known as the "Bar Code".

I am happy to see the bar-code still in use. I am trying to keep this letter brief, but I have extensive records and would be happy to provide details should you be interested.

George T. Reed, Newark, Delaware 5-5-2008 (080419 Bar Code Began)