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George J. Laurer dies; WWII veteran was a creator of the universal bar code system

By ZACHERY EANES | The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) | Published: December 9, 2019

RALEIGH, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — George Joseph Laurer, who revolutionized check-out lines across the world by creating the universal bar code, died earlier this month at his home in Wendell. He was 94.

Laurer helped create the Universal Product Code (UPC) while working at IBM’s office in Research Triangle Park. He had joined the company in 1951 and rose through the ranks to become a senior engineer in 1969, according to a biography on IBM’s website.

Across a career that spanned more than three decades, he became the holder of 25 patents, according to his alma mater, the University of Maryland.

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But it was his invention in 1973 for which he is most remembered. That was the year he invented the UPC bar code, building on advances that IBM had been making for decades in search of a way to code products.

Engineers at IBM first applied for patents around bar code technology in 1949, but the idea remained dormant for decades because laser technology was not yet a practical tool for everyday use, according to a history of the product by IBM.

Another IBMer and longtime Raleigh resident, Joseph Woodland, did some of the earliest work on the bar code, helping conceive of the idea while studying at Drexel University, The News & Observer previously reported. Woodland, who died at 91 in 2012, patented the idea for the bar code in 1952, then took a job at IBM.

“My idea originally came from seeing the black-and-white patterns of motion picture optical sound tracks, and then the ‘dash-dot-dash’ pattern of Morse code,” Woodland said in 1991, according to IBM. “In both of these, a rapidly changing series of signals conveys information. That’s essentially what bar coding is ... a non-verbal symbol ... a Morse code for reading a label.”

It wasn’t until 1970, when Laurer began working on a scanable digital code, that the creation of the UPC gained momentum.

While IBM had a sprawling campus in Research Triangle Park, most of the work on the UPC was being done in a rented building in Raleigh, according to IBM.

And in 1973, IBM launched its first product that could scan the now familiar bar code that adorns nearly every product, whether it is sold in a grocery store or at a mall.

The first transaction using the bar code was done in 1974, at a Marsh’s supermarket in Troy, Ohio, with a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum being scanned, according to IBM. That pack of gum is now at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

The invention was met at first with some trepidation, but eventually became almost universally adopted. It helped drive down costs of checking out customers and made transactions move faster. It also helped sellers track the buying habits of its customers, making management of stores more efficient.

“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.”

One of the biggest challenges was making sure the system was accurate for nearly 100% of its scans, Laurer said, and it took IBM several different iterations of the bar code before they settled on the now iconic rows of lines.

In his personal memoirs, Laurer wrote that the bar code 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,” according to IBM’s history of the product.

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. If a computer charges you too much, all heck breaks loose!”

In its early days, the bar code was also met by protests, from people who viewed the invention as a sign of the end days of Revelation. An urban legend spread that Laurer had hidden the number 666 in the UPC code, Wired Magazine reported.

For years, Laurer was approached by people convinced that he had put that number in his code, 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.”

By the early 2000s, IBM said, bar code systems had become a $17 billion business, with billions of products being scanned around the world each day.

That the bar code was created in the Triangle has become a point of pride for the region, with the UPC often being listed among the Research Triangle’s greatest innovations.

In 2017, while the region was competing for Amazon’s HQ2, the state paid for buses in Amazon’s home of Seattle to be wrapped with advertisements showing off some of the Triangle’s accomplishments. One of the accomplishments that the region decided to highlight in the campaign was Laurer’s invention.

Born in New York City, Laurer served in the U.S. Army during World War II before going on to graduate from the University of Maryland.

For his work on the UPC, he received the Raleigh Inventor of the Year Award in 1976 and was inducted into the University of Maryland Engineering Innovation Hall of Fame in 1991.

He is survived by his four children.

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