• Barcode Ireland Team

George J Laurer III, inventor of the UPC barcode.

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

Inventor of the UPC barcode technology disruptor.

UPC-A barcode. Vertical black and white lines and numbers.

George J Laurer, the inventor of the UPC (Universal Product Code) barcode, died on 5 December 2019 at his home in Wendell, near Raleigh North Carolina. He was 94 years of age. Predeceased by his wife Marilyn in 2013, he is survived by his four children, three grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

This small, instantly recognisable, domineering symbology of vertical black and white lines and a 12 digit number, is scanned throughout the world some 6 billion times a day. Not only has it has it transformed the retail and manufacturing industries and many other industries worldwide, but incredibly, world trade.

Laurer was a senior electrical engineer with IBM in North Carolina's Research Triangle Park when he spearheaded the development of the UPC barcode. In the early 1970’s, grocery stores in the US faced mounting costs and the labour-intensive need to put price tags on an increasing array of products. IBM was working to develop a barcode and scanner system that could be used in supermarkets across the country to track inventory and speed up the checkout, and Laurer was tasked to work on a proposal for grocery executives.

As with many inventions, Laurer’s success was the culmination of the collective efforts of many before him. The barcode concept originated in the 1940s, when Norman Joseph Woodland designed a bull’s-eye symbology of concentric circles, inspired by the dots and dashes of Morse code. He and another inventor, Bernard Silver, patented an early version of their system in 1952, Woodland later receiving the National Medal of Technology from President George H.W. Bush. Held in high esteem at IBM, Laurer referred to him as “the father of the supermarket scanning system.”

However, computing and laser technologies took decades to catch up to his concept. Serendipitously, Woodland was now an IBM colleague of Laurer.

Laurer realised there were insurmountable flaws in the bulls-eye barcode - its size and lack of crispness in printing. He designed a rectangular barcode to obviate these difficulties which he then refined with colleagues Woodland and Heard Baumeister. After many iterations the rectangular barcode we know today, was accepted by the grocery industry in 1973 as the standard Universal product code, UPC.

In his personal memoirs, (“Engineering Was Fun!”) Laurer wrote that the barcode had to have a “first pass read rate of 99.99% or better,” and the “undetected error must not exceed one in 20,000 reads,” The process needed to be nearly flawless because they found customers would have no patience for a machine.

“We learned something very important about people,” Laurer said in 2010. “We learned that people will forgive the cute little grocery store clerk if she mischarges by a few cents. If the clerk charges you 97 cents instead of 79 cents, no big deal - that’s okay, it’s no real problem. But we don’t forgive computers, no matter how bad they are"

Initially, the barcode was also met by protests from people who viewed the invention as a sign of the end days in the book of Revelation. Urban legend had it that Laurer had hidden the number 666 (the mark if the beast) in the UPC barcode. Laurer was continuously approached by people convinced of this, The New York Times reported in 2013, an accusation he repeatedly denied.

“All of this is pure bunk,” he told Wired in 2012, “and is no more important than the fact that my first, middle, and last name all have six letters.”

The Universal Product Code made its official debut in 1974, when a scanner registered 67 cents for a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit at a Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio. The package of gum is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

“It was slow to be accepted,” Laurer said in 2010. “It makes sense why it was slow - it’s the chicken and the egg. The grocery manufacturers didn’t want to put symbols on their packages unless there was something in the store to read them. And of course the stores didn’t want to invest in the equipment unless there was something to read. It was slow coming about and at one point The Wall Street Journal said it was a complete flop. It took until about 1977 for the UPC to really take off.”

However, “It was cheap and it was needed,” Mr. Laurer told The New York Times in 2009. “And it is reliable.”

George Joseph Laurer III was born in Manhattan, September 23 1925. His father held law and engineering degrees and was a Naval engineer, moving the family to Baltimore. His mother Irma, ran a day care centre. From an early age George demonstrated his engineering bent by tinkering with radios and model airplanes. Contracting polio in his teens, he was bedridden for two years recovering only to be drafted into the army during WWII whilst still in High School.

Upon discharge from the army as a technical sergeant, he enrolled in an electronics repair course at a Baltimore college where he was persuaded by an instructor to take a high school equivalency exam and enrol in college.

He graduated from the University of Maryland with a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering in 1951, earning both amateur radio and private pilot’s licenses. In that same year he joined IBM in Endicott, New York and remained at the company for 36 years, retiring in 1987.

George J Laurer III received 25 patents and spent much of his career developing barcode sensors, which he said had driven IBM’s interest in barcode technology in the first place. He told the Observer that the company never patented the UPC, and “just gave the symbol away as a way to sell equipment.”

He will perhaps best be remembered for the invention of the UPC barcode for which he never received royalties or grew wealthy and which saved the grocery industry $17 billion in the first 25 years after its creation.

In 1976, Laurer received the Raleigh [NC] Inventor of the Year Award and was honoured with IBM's Corporate Technical Achievement award in 1980. He was inducted into the Innovation Hall of Fame at the University of Maryland. An unassuming man, when the University of Maryland’s engineering school was looking for candidates for its hall of fame, he and other alumni were asked to report notable achievements. Only at the insistence of his family did he record, “invented the Universal Product Code” next to his name.

“I’ve often said the most important thing the UPC did was to show the world that barcodes were viable, “says Laurer. “After that, there are hundreds of other barcodes in existence today. The automobile VIN code, anyplace you look you’ll see other barcodes,” he adds. “The thing the UPC did was show the world that yes, barcodes are here to stay.”

Barcodes are here to stay.

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