Lasers, Barcodes and Scanners – Oh My!
Lee and I were watching PBS again, a series based on the book [su_tooltip style=”blue” position=”east” title=”Affiliate Link” content=”This is an affiliate link that will take you to Amazon.com. To learn more about how we use affiliate links, how we respect your privacy, and how you are not charged unless who choose to make a purchase, follow the link to our Disclosure Statement at the end of this post. It might sound boring but our Disclosure Statement is actually a pretty entertaining and informative read so we encourage you to check it out.”]’How We Got to Now.'[/su_tooltip] This particular episode was on the invention of artificial light and the huge impact it has had on society. Then they got to lasers – that got my interest. Turns out the first practical application of lasers wasn’t blowing things up like so many science fiction authors had predicted but in shopping. In a way, lasers blew up the Mom and Pop store and ushered in the era of the big box super-store we are so familiar with today.
For many decades, stores had been looking for ways to automate tracking their inventory. Several inventions had to come together before this was possible.
- A machine readable medium that was cheap to produce and could efficiently store product information
- A device that was small and cheap enough that could efficiently read this medium
- A standard coding system agreed to by manufacturers and retailers
- Computers that were also small enough and cheap enough that could be installed in individual stores
Inspired by the dots and dashes of the Morse Code, the first machine readable codes were created along with machines to read them in the early 1950s. These devices used powerful light bulbs to read codes but these were not very accurate and the large size and tremendous heat made these machines impractical. The automated reading of codes would have to wait a couple more decades.
Lasers had been around for decades but had no practical use. Turns out, lasers are very accurate at reading black and white lines. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, lasers were becoming small and cheap enough to use on a large scale.
The introduction of affordable lasers triggered the rush to come up with a standardized coding system. In the 1970s, machine readable bar codes became common place. Several codes were born but the Universal Product Code (or UPC) was eventually adopted as the standard coding system.
The spread of integrated circuits led to smaller, cheaper computers throughout the 1970s and eventually led to the first personal computers in the late 1970s. But in the early and mid 1970s, computers were just getting small enough and cheap enough they could be installed in individual stores.
June 26, 1974 marked the first time a laser was used to scan a barcode in a retail transaction – a pack of chewing gum – and a new era in retail began.
Initial adoption of barcode scanners was slow at first – the equipment was still expensive at first (but getting cheaper), employees had to be trained, and many products didn’t have barcodes yet. As barcodes became more common, productivity gains began to be seen as checkers could check out faster and more accurately.
The End of Mom And Pop Stores – The Rise of Big Box Stores
Shorter lines and fewer mistakes at checkout resulted in gains for retailers. The gains often paid for the equipment in under two years. The gains were not equally realized by all retailers – big box stores saw bigger gains than Mom and Pop stores. The era of big box stores started in 1962 when Wal-Mart, K-mart and Target first opened. A big box store gives the consumer more choice and the savings that retailers get with big bulk purchases can be passed onto the consumer via lower prices. Prior to automation, it was difficult for those big box stores to keep track of all that inventory and it took time to update prices for all those items. You need more employees to maintain all that inventory, update prices and restock it. There was a practical limit on how large these stores could grow.
With lasers and machine-readable barcodes and computerized inventory systems, the big box stores were able to expand the inventory they could maintain, make bigger bulk purchases, all with the same or fewer number of employees and pass the savings onto the consumer. The combination of choice and lower prices drew in the crowds, siphoning them away from the smaller stores that couldn’t compete on choice or price.
A Barcode is Born
It was the grocery industry that pushed for improved inventory tracking. Representatives of the grocery industry realized a long time before that better systems were needed. Bernard Silver, a graduate student at Drexel University, overheard a conversation where a grocery executive requested a dean at Drexel University to do research on the topic – which the dean turned down.
Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver filed patent application serial number 122,416 on October 20, 1949 (which later became Patent Number 2,612,994 on October 7, 1952), marking the invention of the barcode. The patent also describes a barcode scanning device that relied on light to read the barcode. The apparatus relied on a 500-watt bulb (500 watts!!) that cast off a lot of light and heat and took up a lot of room. It simply was not practical to use. What the inventors needed was the ability to focus a large amount of light into a very small area. What they needed was a laser but lasers were still a long way off.
Lasers were becoming more powerful and more affordable by the late 1960s. There were a few industrial applications combining barcodes and lasers, proving the concept they could be used to read codes. Integrated circuits were also become smaller and cheaper, providing the processing power to handle the information picked up by the laser.
With the increased availability of lasers and computers, several organizations proposed different formats and coding systems that could be read by these lasers – a bulls-eye pattern, a starburst pattern and other patterns. George Laurer, working for IBM along with input from Woodland, proposed the UPC system based on the simple bar pattern we are all familiar with. On April 3, 1973 the Universal Product Code was adopted by members of manufacturing and retailing as their standard coding system.
A Barcode Is Read
On June 26, 1974 everything came together. Technology was affordable, standards were agreed on and set, and a single pack of gum became the first product sold with the assistance of a laser scanner.
One of the first UPC scanners, made by NCR Corp, was installed in June 1974 at Marsh’s supermarket in Troy, Ohio. On June 26, a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum became the first product scanned at a check-out counter. The 40 year anniversary of the event was recognized June 26, 2014. You can find this scanner at the Smithsonian. Several sources on the Internet say you can find the gum at the Smithsonian as well but I cannot find any proof of this.
The Mom and Pop Store is Dead? Not so Fast!
It may be too early to mourn the death of the Mom and Pop shop. Technology may have changed the playing field to the big box retailer’s favor but technology continues to shake things up. Scanners and computers continue to drop in price but most importantly, the growth of the Internet and distributors such as UPS and Fedex increase efficiencies so that anyone can afford their services. Platforms such as Amazon and eBay as well as Etsy are giving the big box stores a run for their money and enabling smaller businesses to compete more equally with the big box stores. Small format stores are now seeing a resurgence while big box stores are struggling. Best Buy has closed several of their big box stores, opening several new small format stores. Borders Books declared bankruptcy, partially due to not taking advantage of changes in technology and steering away from niche titles, two areas the new small stores are taking advantage of. Wal-Mart continues to expand the number of its small footprint ‘Neighborhood’ stores. As big-box stores struggle and try to adapt to changes, many small businesses and entrepreneurs are starting new businesses, opening storefronts both online and offline, taking advantage of technologies once used to clobber them plus new technologies to now clobber back.
While looking for images for this article, we ran across this one. Even though it isn’t exactly on topic (well, it does include lasers – maybe those are Mom and Pop shops in the city being blown up?), Penny insisted we use it. Penny can be very persuasive.
Do you remember a time before barcode scanners? Ever work at a store before barcode scanners? Know of any proof that the Smithsonian actually has the first package of chewing gum scanned with a barcode reader? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.
Disclosure: This post may include affiliate links. Let’s face it – it probably does include affiliate links – who are we kidding? Anyway, we encourage you to check out our Disclosure Statement – it sounds boring but its a pretty entertaining and informative read. Learn why we use affiliate links, learn what an affiliate link is and how they work, how we respect your privacy, and why we even tell you we are using affiliate links in the first place.
- Barcoding.com: Barcodes Sweep the World By Tony Seideman
- Adams1.com: A Short History Of Bar Code
- Chicago Tribune: 40 years ago today: Wrigley gum the first product to have its bar code scanned
- Smithsonian: Supermarket Scanner
- Bloomberg: The Era of Big Box Retail Dominance Is Coming to an End
- CNBS: Big-Box Backlash: The Rebirth of Mom-and-Pop Shops