Beep Beep: The History of George Laurer and the Barcode

How a 67-cent pack of Juicy Fruit, and a guy who said no, changed the way we shopped

Forty-five years ago Clyde Dawson handed over a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum to checkout clerk Sharon Buchanan in the Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio. It was 8 a.m. and Dawson wasn’t any ordinary shopper — he was Marsh’s director of research and development — and this wasn’t any ordinary transaction.

History was made, and it cost 67 cents.

This was the first time the Universal Product Code (UPC) barcode — the small black-and-white label we see on all the items we buy from stores — had been used in a commercial environment. Clyde Dawson was asked a year later whether he felt the implementation of barcode scanning in his stores was beneficial.

“Decidedly yes,” he told me. “For a 14-item order, the manual system handles 45 customers per hour; the scanning system 51 — a 13% improvement in throughput.” It might not have been the most impassioned answer, but Dawson was prescient. Four decades on, barcodes dominate our lives. A 67-cent packet of gum has ballooned into an enormous industry, and five billion barcodes are scanned each and every day.

“One application of the invention,” they wrote, “is in the so-called supermarket field.”

But how did we get to this point, and who was responsible for the UPC barcode?

Were it not for a radio and TV repair instructor named Mr. Kuttlechuck, George Laurer would likely have ended up a ne’er-do-well.

“At times I wasn’t the upright teenager I should’ve been,” Laurer admits. While in his freshman year at Forest Park High School in Baltimore, Maryland, Laurer contracted polio, taking him out of the regular classroom routine for nearly two years. When he did return, World War II interrupted his education again.

After the war, Laurer joined a radio and TV school. A year later, Kuttlechuck took Laurer aside and told him he should go to college. Kuttlechuck pulled a few strings, and Laurer joined the engineering school at the University of Maryland.

In 1951, Laurer graduated into a tough job market. With a friend, he set off on a trip along the east coast to apply for work at the country’s biggest and brightest engineering companies: RCA, General Electric, and IBM. Laurer had been offered a job before graduation with the U.S. Navy Electronics Laboratory, but the offer had been withdrawn before he could turn up for work, and he was determined to accept any fair offer. When IBM officials at Endicott, New York offered him $80 a week, he accepted, and began his tenure at the company.

While Laurer worked his way through college and into IBM, another pair of engineers was forming thoughts about a means through which items could be classified and recorded. On October 20, 1949 Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph (“Joe”) Woodland — who would later work at IBM with Laurer — submitted a patent application for a technology he called Classifying Apparatus and Method.”

The nine-page document was granted patent number 2,612,994 just shy of three years later, and in it Woodland and Silver outlined the rudimentary design of a barcode-like system. “One application of the invention,” they wrote, “is in the so-called supermarket field.”

By this point Woodland, like Laurer, was employed by IBM, who passed on the concept behind Laurer’s patent. Woodland’s conception of the barcode — a series of concentric circles in a ‘bullseye’ formation — ended up in the hands of engineers at RCA, one of IBM’s main competitors, in 1952. Both Laurer and Woodland occupied themselves with other projects.

Supermarkets realized the benefits of computerized categorization of their products soon after Woodland and Silver’s patent was granted. By the mid-1960s, brash bold futurism and the first inklings of a modern society meant supermarkets stretched across the country, replacing simple and small grocery stores. The average store offered around 10,000 products up for sale; overall a million different items were sold at supermarkets across the United States. It became a headache for retailers.

“There had to be an industry solution,” explains Bill Selmeier, who was part of IBM’s supermarket marketing team in the early 1970s, and now runs IDHistory, an online museum dedicated to the UPC barcode. In 1966 supermarkets like the Kroger company, at the time the third-largest retailer in the United States, and Heinz, a major food manufacturer, took the lead in trying to automate the supermarket checkout experience.

George J. Laurer circa 1987. Credit: PhilFree via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 1.0

A Symbol Selection subcommittee was established in 1970 to find the best design for the UPC barcode. They set up an open competition, and invited companies to submit options for potential designs.

IBM was invited to submit a proposal, or at least to back a pre-existing option, of which there were many. RCA’s design for the barcode Symbol Selection Committee was circular and it was similar to the design in Joe Woodland’s patent that RCA had bought. It was sent for approval to Paul McEnroe. McEnroe was Laurer’s neighbor and was just about to go on a two-week vacation with his family. McEnroe palmed off the barcode approval to Laurer, asking him to take the fortnight to produce a slide deck in preparation for his return from vacation.

“I just couldn’t do that,” he says, gruffly, when asked why he didn’t approve the circular design. “I didn’t know if I could do better or not, but one thing was certain: I could not support something I didn’t believe in. It didn’t matter if I could come up with another code, or a better code, or if any code could be done to fit it. Just my training and my background would not let me support something I did not fully agree with.”

It was a demeanor he got from his father, who turned down a career in New York law after going to college and passing the bar because he said “I can’t work with these crooks.” Laurer Sr. went back to school and retrained — as an electrical engineer.

“We were a bunch of mavericks, believe me,” Laurer laughs.

That flicker of feistiness was fanned by IBM’s working atmosphere; the company encouraged productive individualism, believes Bill Selmeier.

“George was an engineer. He wasn’t really trying to understand the way grocery manufacturers were thinking or how they’d react to this,” he says.

Laurer instead saw the problem, and wanted to find a solution. He believed the circular design would not print crisply on contemporary commercial printers, many of which dated back to the early 20th century. He believed the lines were too close together. So he came up with an alternative.

When Paul McEnroe, Laurer’s boss, returned from his vacation the day before the presentation to IBM bosses, he was greeted with some unfortunate news.

“I said, ‘Paul, you’d better look at this because I didn’t do what you told me to do. I’ve done something entirely different.’”

Laurer and McEnroe spent the rest of the day talking through the details of Laurer’s UPC proposal. Rather than write a white paper approving RCA’s bullseye barcode, Laurer had spent the past 14 days coming up with a proposal of his own: a linear barcode that met the requirements put forth by the supermarkets’ and manufacturers’ council, and also solved the problems of smudging and scale he saw with everyone else’s designs.

McEnroe accepted Laurer’s proposal with one caveat: Laurer would make the presentation to the IBM higher-ups the following day, and if the proposal didn’t fly, it would be his responsibility.

Aided by an easel full of flipcharts drawn by Laurer’s 15-year-old son, Craig, the proposal to IBM bosses went smoothly. But IBM staff in Rochester, Minnesota specializing in optical character reading highlighted some deficiencies that were ironed out before IBM’s proposal for a UPC barcode was presented to the committee of retailers and manufacturers in San Francisco, California in January 1973.

Laurer worked closely with two other men to make the IBM UPC design presentable. One, David Savir, ran through the system’s mathematics with a fine-tooth comb and produced dense operating manuals explaining the science behind UPC scanning and coding.

The team’s other principal actor was a recognizable face in the world of barcodes: Joe Woodland. The creator of the 1949 patent mentioning potential for the supermarket industry worked in the same office in IBM’s Building 2 in Raleigh, a long, cavernous workshop the company leased on Yonkers Road, to the northeast of the city.

Woodland, by this point in his early fifties, was widely respected by all those involved in the UPC project. He was seen as the strategist of the IBM team, and gave them a distinct advantage: IBM could credibly claim lineage in barcode development all the way back to 1949 — conveniently overlooking the fact that they’d turned down the option to buy and develop Woodland’s original patent in 1952.

The group made their way to San Francisco and put forward their proposal to the assembled retailers and manufacturers.

“When it was over, the Symbol Selection Committee felt the IBM proposal was the strongest,” explains Bill Selmeier. “I’ve been told it was based on the fact that it met all issues about printing, and it had the densest information pack. In other words, you could get more characters in less space with IBM’s proposal than with the other ones” — an important consideration for retailers who weren’t keen to give up prime real estate on the front of their packaging.

The industry now had a unified symbol it could throw its weight behind, the end result of a process first initiated in 1966. The excitement over the new system was palpable. A trade rag, the UPC Newsletter, wrote in November 1973, “The Universal Product Code, the symbol, and now — closing the loop — the electronic and scanning equipment! It’s all here. It now remains for all of us to move as expeditiously as possible toward full implementation of the system.”

John L Strubbe, a 22-year veteran of Kroger Supermarkets who had served as an intelligence officer with the US Marine Corps during World War II and the Korean War, spoke at the Harris Trust and Savings Bank in Chicago, Illinois on November 15, 1973, his first act as the newly elected chairman of the Uniform Grocery Product Code Council (UGPCC). 15 council members were gathered around him, looking forward to the year ahead in which Strubbe said there was “only one end result in mind: making a great concept work.”

By the end of the year, the UGPCC had 800 members, whose companies accounted for nearly 90% of grocery sales excluding meat and fresh produce. But uptake of the UPC symbol itself was slow, even if companies were signing up to its code council. “There was the chicken and the egg problem,” says Laurer.

“The retailers were waiting for the manufacturers” to put the newly approved UPC symbol, as designed by the IBM team, on the products they sold, says Selmeier. “Well guess what? The manufacturers were waiting for the retailers.”

Laurer continues: “The grocers didn’t want to spend money for scanners” — which could cost $200,000 per unit for stores — “until there were symbols on products. And the manufacturers didn’t want to put symbols on the packages until there was something to read them.”

At the same time angry workers strongly opposed barcodes. A skeptical Congressional committee brought supermarket representatives in front of them to testify about the efficacy of the new system. A worried public didn’t trust the system, and fretted they’d be bilked on their weekly shopping bills. But slowly, surely, the barcode became normal — and took over the world, starting at Marsh’s supermarket in Troy, Ohio.

“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.”

Today, the blue-suited IBMer wearing the wide lapels and big-rimmed glasses is an 88-year-old widower living on 50 acres of farmland outside of Wendell, North Carolina. When I first call him on a sunny Wednesday afternoon he picks up the phone immediately: he’d sat waiting for my call because, as he admitted in a prior email, sometimes it takes him so long to reach the telephone he misses calls entirely.

“I enjoy learning; I don’t know,” he says quizzically. “I just like that kind of stuff.”

Truth be told, Laurer didn’t really want to talk over the phone. Age has made him hard of hearing: my British accent combined with a transatlantic line means he can’t understand some of my shouted questions. Those he does hear, he tends to reconfirm by saying, “What I think you asked is… ” and giving a precise reading of the query back at you. Only when I say “yes” does he launch into his answers.

Laurer has been retired for the better part of 26 years, but still engages with engineering today. His latest ongoing project takes up a section of the couple of acres in front of his home in Raleigh: he’s building a solar array with his grandson to measure how efficient present-day solar cells are in converting the power of the sun into energy. “I enjoy learning; I don’t know,” he says quizzically. “I just like that kind of stuff.”

For 13 years following his retirement, he and his wife, Marilyn, would travel each summer around the United States, Mexico, and Canada in their motorhome. Whenever they would pop into grocery stores, supermarkets, or gas stations, Laurer’s wife would regularly smile and wink at cashiers and attendants, pointing out that her husband invented the barcode they were scanning — and the concept behind the scanner machine, too.

“She pointed it out all the time,” Laurer says with a laugh. “Most of the time people had one of three reactions: one was, ‘You must be very rich’; another was ‘I don’t believe it’, and the third was: ‘Gee: didn’t we always have barcodes?’”

Then and now, when Laurer shops for his weekly groceries, he’s happy to see his invention in its natural environment. “Even today, Chris, I think it’s so funny, because I remember how crude our amplifiers were, and the lasers, and things of that sort. When I look at these [workers] in the grocery store today I just can’t believe the products scan that well. I’m always amazed.”

It’s something we take for granted — that the barcode system we use works. On the odd occasion it fails, assistants can be befuddled, bemoaning the fact they have to tap in the product code by hand into their cash register. But when you think about it, it’s quite amazing.

“You have to realize,” Bill Selmeier explains to me, “that most of these people in Building 602 didn’t think they were changing the way the world shopped. They thought they were getting IBM into a new electronics business — and they still think of it that way.”

Between my conversations with George Laurer, I had to visit a number of stores to do some shopping: a parent’s birthday and a party meant I needed to pick up a number of things from various shops.

In IKEA I stood in a self-checkout line, watching harassed fathers calming stressed-out sons while their mother scanned items through the register. Later that day, I swiped my groceries through a self-service point at a huge supermarket, and in amongst the chatter of shoppers, the clatter of grocery carts, and the beeping of cash registers, I thought: in this moment, at this time, 40 years ago, this wasn’t possible. Four decades ago this was a concept, not a reality. I thought of typewritten technical manuals, boring ties, smart shoes, and smoke-filled meeting rooms. And I thought of George Laurer, patiently waiting by the phone, and the work he did in his freshly-pressed suit, long before many of us were born, to make real what was then a fantasy we take for granted today.

All Rights Reserved for Chris Stokel-Walker

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