On June 26, at 8:01 a.m, Sharon Buchanan, a check-out operator at Marsh’s supermarket in Troy, Ohio scanned the first product with a barcode: a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum. The pack is now preserved at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. Barcode scanning took some time to reach Australia.
A barcode is an optical, machine-readable representation of data. The invention of the barcode is generally attributed to Norman Woodland, in conjunction with his friend Bernard Silver, a student at the Drexel Institute of Techology in Philadelphia, USA. Silver first floated the idea in 1948 and in 1949 the pair made a patent application for a barcode scanning system. The initial system was based on Morse code.
The US grocery industry became interested in barcode scanning in the mid 1960s, setting up the Committee for U.S. Supermarkets on a Uniform Grocery-Product Code (UPC). Various different systems were trialled. Woodland was later employed by IBM where he developed the linear barcode that was adopted by the UPC in 1973.
Not everyone liked the idea of barcodes and conspiracy theories were floated, including the idea that the IBM barcode was designed to include the “devil’s number” or “Mark of the Beast”: 666. In 1981 a woman named Mary Stewart Relfe actually wrote a book about it, called When Your Money Fails, The “666” System” is Here. She quoted passages from the Bible’s Book of Revelations about marks to be inserted on the body, perhaps believing we’d all soon be barcoded so the devil could claim us.
There is evidence that the introduction of barcode scanning immediately increased sales in supermarkets as well as reducing operating costs. The use of barcodes now extends far beyond retail stores with versions of the technology employed in ticketing for events, airline boarding passes and luggage tracking, freight tracking and many other applications.