In 1949, two Drexel Institute of Technology graduate students, Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver, began working on a way to identify products in grocery stores; they adapted Morse Code’s dots and dashes into a series of lines of various thicknesses, which became the precursor to today’s Universal Price Code barcodes. The two filed a patent in 1952 but it would be two more than decades before scanning technology got good enough to make use of their invention. The first real-life use of a barcode occurred when a man bought a pack of gum in a grocery store in Ohio in 1974.

Slow Start to a Commercial Revolution

Grocery executive Alan Haberman spearheaded the implementation of barcodes, the New York Times noted in a 2011 article. Some large grocery manufacturers and distributors feared that each retail chain would demand a customized product-identification design. IBM’s George J. Laurer adapted the original Woodland-Silver idea into a standardized series of lines that could print clearly and could encode enough digits needed to identify each product. Haberman headed an industry committee that approved the design in 1973. Just over a year later, an optical scanner in the Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio, read the UPC on the pack of gum, signaling its success in doing so with the now-familiar "beep."