It may be hard to believe but this year marks the golden anniversary of a ubiquitous piece of technology that doesn’t have to boot up, doesn’t need a battery recharge, never needs a new style of USB cable, and has baffled an American president.
It’s the bar code, those vertical lines of varying thicknesses that you see with a bunch of numbers on just about every package of goods you buy in a grocery or retail store.
And despite the endless praise in the media for modern tech gurus like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or even the controversial Elon Musk, the bar code was the end product of a team of IBM researchers and engineers who labored anonymously to devise an inventory tracking technology that would be useful and practical for retailers to embrace.
In a new memoir, The Barcode: How a Team Created One of the World’s Most Ubiquitous Technologies, IBM engineer Paul McEnroe tells the story of how the scannable inventory code came to be composed of bars.
Listen to my audio interview with Paul McEnroe about the history of the bar code in this podcast player.
“It had very poor reliability,” he recalled. “And it’s probably good that it didn’t get started because I think it would have been a big failure, because in the early days, before you get the label printing by the manufacturers in real high quality, you have to print it in the store, and you have to use inexpensive printers and the reliability goes way down.”
The bar code technology started out as a way to drive sales of IBM computers, McEnroe explained. He said IBM’s then-president, Frank Cary, thought expanding the amount of data collected and stored would drive demand for hardware sales.
Cary tasked McEnroe with assembling a team to tackle the project, and he says they eventually decided to focus on data collected at the point-of-sale.
The team developed a display terminal to replace conventional cash registers that would be connected to inventory computers in the stock room. By integrating scanners that could read symbols off packages, they could track details about each item purchased, McEnroe said.
“We and they both recognized that if you just put some kind of a label, a readable label, on every product that sold in the store, and you identify that label with a number, then you can just use the number, you can print out whatever description you keep with the number,” he said.
Oddly for IBM, once the code system was developed, it was released into public domain use instead of being patented and commercialized, McEnroe recalled.
“They knew if it was successful, it was going to be zillions of these things,” he said. “Ten billion a day is what it is today. And so they said, ‘if you want to submit a code, you have to put it first in the public domain and then you can submit it.’ So nobody will own any rights to the code. If you want to make money at this, you can build great scanners and great systems and sell the systems to the supermarkets.”
The ingenuity of the bar code system is the ability of lasers to scan the width of the black bars, but also measure the width of the white space between them. This enabled the bar code engineers to add an error-checking feature to ensure that the codes are read correctly.
The famous incident with President George Bush and the grocery scanner actually took place at a grocery industry conference, McEnroe recalled. Bush was looking for an opportunity to counter allegations from the Bill Clinton campaign that he was out of touch, and set up the photo op with Bush and the scanner, even though they had been in wide use for about 15 years already. But Bush expressed so much amazement afterward that ordinary people, long familiar with the technology, didn’t see him as tech-aware.
“It just was a bad perception of his awareness of modern technology,” McEnroe said.