The barcode turns 40

Forty years ago today (Thursday), the purchase of a 67-cent package of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum at an Ohio supermarket, received what may have seemed like an undue amount of attention.

With reporters and photographers looking on, a flat cellophane bag of 10 smaller gum packages, now enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution, was the subject of the first-ever transaction in the world to involve scanning a bar code. It took several years for the grocery industry to adopt the new standard, but it was the beginning of a technological revolution the bar code’s boosters say saves businesses billions of dollars a year and is even more relevant in this hyperlinked age. Before you ate your lunch today, more than 2.5 billion bar codes were scanned around the world.

Some were suspicious at first. According to Wired Magazine, when US supermarkets switched to bar codes, protesters warned the bar code was a sign of the devil. It was a conspiracy theory not helped by the number IBM gave its bar-code readers: 3666.

The bar code also became a potent symbol for anti-establishment artists and social critics of consumer society.

For example, Vancouver based Adbusters has used the image of a bar code tattooed on a human head to illustrate its anti-consumption message.

There were more grounded concerns as well. Some shoppers did not trust they would get the right price at the register, and liked having price tags to refer to on all the items in their cart. During the 1974 trial of the technology in Dorval, grocery store managers distributed grease pencils to customers in case they wanted to write prices on bar-coded packages themselves, but few did so.

The benefits of the bar code - officially known as the Universal Product Code (UPC) and itself first developed by IBM in the 1950s - soon outweighed such complaints. Cashiers no longer had to type in long product numbers and businesses could keep much better track of their sales and inventories. A 1970s ad from food giant Kraft trying to sell consumers on the bar code's benefits boasted it was "the beginning of the end of the long checkout line."

By 1992, bar-code readers were so ubiquitous that then-US-president George H.W. Bush faced ridicule for appearing out-of-touch with voters after he reportedly showed a "a look of wonder" on his face when examining a bar-code scanner at a grocery industry convention on the campaign trail.

Now, the bar code is being joined by more complex versions that convey more data, and replaced by some major retailers by wireless radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags - but the same standardised code underlies the new technology as well.

For consumers, the future means scanning bar codes with smartphones — something many already do - looking for information about allergies, health benefits or environmental impact. The smartphone apps now being used rely mostly on crowdsourced information.
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