Roman: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
[background music] [beep sound]
Roman: This sound is unmistakable.
Katie: Maybe you find it kind of lulling like I do, since it signifies the end of a trip to the grocery store. You found all the things on your list and now you get to just stand there and zone out for a second, or flip through a Basset Magazine while the checkout person does the work.
Roman: That’s our new producer Katie Mingle. I myself find that sound a bit anxiety-inducing since it’s also the sound of the total that I’m going to have to pay going up and up and up and up.
George: When I go to the grocery store and check out, I’m utterly amazed at how well the scanners can read barcodes. No, I don’t tell the checkout people. My wife always did and, “My husband here is one that invented that barcode.” And like just kind of look at you as if to say, “Yeah, I believe that.” Of course, today they would look at you as if to say, “You mean there was a time they didn’t have a barcode?”
Roman: It’s hard to imagine now, a world without barcodes, a world without George Laurer.
George: Well, hello. I’m George J. Laurer. I’m the one that invented the UPC barcode and symbol in 1973.
Katie: Now, some of you might be saying to yourselves, “I thought Joseph Woodland invented the barcode.”
Roman: And if you’re saying that to yourself, you are a nerd and I love you for it. And just hold your nerd horses because we’re getting to Woodland right now.
Katie: It started the way a lot of things start, with people trying to make more money.
George: The grocery business decided that they needed some way to reduce their overhead.
Katie: One of the main places they felt they were losing money was the checkout line.
George: They came up with the idea of having some kind of a scannable code.
Katie: Which would move people more quickly through the line. One of the first people that started working on it was an engineer named Joseph Woodland. After working on the Manhattan Project, Woodland moved on to develop an innovative way to produce elevator music. He was jamming on this project probably set to make a whole bunch of money until, and this is according to Woodland’s New York Times obituary, his father forbid him from getting into the industry because it was controlled by the mob.
[gun shot sounds]
Roman: So Woodland moved on from elevator music to barcodes.
Katie: He was trying to come up with a symbol that when scanned would translate to a series of numbers that a computer could use to identify a product. So, one day he’s sitting on the beach in Miami, Florida.
Roman: So the legend goes…
Katie: And Woodland is thinking about his days in the Boy Scouts and Morse code.
Roman: As one tends to do on the beach.
Katie: And he’s kind of absent-mindedly drawing in the sand with his fingers when suddenly he looks down and he’s got it.
Roman: He’s dragged his four fingers through the sand in the shape of concentric circles.
Katie: Instead of dot-dot-dot, dash- dash-dash, he thinks, “I can use skinny and wide lines.”
Katie: Bullseye. The very first barcodes were in the shape of a bullseye. Actually, they didn’t call them barcodes yet. Woodland’s invention was called a classifying apparatus and method.
Roman: I’m really glad that we don’t call them that anymore. That was 1948. And then for about 20 years, the bullseye idea gathered dust. The scanners and other equipment needed to put the system in place were just too expensive for any of it to be feasible.
Katie: Fast forward to 1973. The technology is now a bit more affordable and a group of supermarket executives, led by a guy named Alan Haberman are like, “Okay. Barcode or bust, we’re doing this.” By that time there were a few other designs out there, but none were perfect so they put together a list of qualities that their ideal barcode would have and asked 14 different companies to come up with a proposal.
George: Could be no larger than one and a half square inches, had to have a– put enough depth of field like it could have read about a foot and a half above the scanner. Had to be omni-directional.
Katie: That’s George Laurer again. He was working at IBM at the time, which was one of the companies competing to make the best barcode.
Roman: And most people thought that a circular design like Woodland’s would probably work best because of the way the scanners worked.
George: In those days, just about every scanner was a single line. You can just picture that if you had a single line and it was going in the direction of the bar, it would not read all the bars.
Katie: Woodland’s original circular design solved this because it could be read from any direction. That meant the checkout person didn’t have to take your bag of Cheetos and turn it in just the right way before it could pass over the scanner.
Roman: But George didn’t think the bullseye symbol would work.
George: I couldn’t support that as the solution to what the grocery industry wanted. Because to me, there was no way that it would fulfill their specifications. My integrity just would not let me come up with a bunch of bull.
Katie: So George went back to the drawing table.
George: My wife said, I came back and I would work on it day and night. Come back at night and again most of us was thinking arithmetic, trying to prove that this would work. Also, I have to admit, I had to disprove that some of the others wouldn’t work.
Katie: He ultimately came up with a rectangular barcode that fit more code into less space which was crucial since grocery manufacturers were already grumbling about having to make room for this new symbol on their packaging, but there was still the issue of the one-line scanner.
George: Somehow we got the idea that if we use an X for the scan pattern which could be developed very easily with a pair of mirrors–
Katie: Then the barcode could be read by the scanner no matter which way it was oriented as it passed.
Roman: So, even though Woodland came up with the original idea of using lines of various widths, George Laurer did more than just change that shape from a circle to a rectangle. He improved on the symbol, the code behind the symbol and the scanners that read the symbol. Even Joe Woodland thought so.
George: Joe Woodland was very enthusiastic. He worked with me. In fact, he wrote the actual proposal for the submission to the grocery industry, but it was my invention of the particular symbol and barcode that we see today.
Katie: The symbol selection committee unanimously voted for George Laurer’s rectangular symbol and code. They called it the Universal Product Code or UPC. A year later in 1974, a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum became the first item to ever be scanned with the UPC barcode.
[background music] [beep sound]
Sanjay: If barcodes haven’t been invented the entire layout and architecture of commerce would have been different. The impacts are very difficult to overestimate. My name is Sanjay Sarma. I’m a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT.
Katie: Sanjay Sarma has also worked with an organization called GS1 that stands for Global Standards One. If you need a barcode on your product, you have to go through GS1 to get it.
Sanjay: Imagine if telephone numbers weren’t standardized, right? And there aren’t area codes and two people could have the same phone number, you know? You need standards.
Roman: When barcodes became the standard, they didn’t just make checkout lines faster. They allowed stores to keep track of huge amounts of inventory and to collect data on what we were buying, data they could use to keep us coming back for more. Without barcodes–
Sanjay: The superstores might not exist. But equally, a small store might need more employees to run it. It’s like the grease that makes the machine run, that’s one of the key elements of efficiency in our capitalistic system.
Roman: And when you put it like that, you can see why for some people, the barcode has come to represent everything they hate about capitalism and consumerism.
Female 1: You can get wrapped candies of every kind; bubblegum, lollipops, fun size candy bars, just $1.89.
Roman: When I was a punk kid if a band’s album had a barcode on it, we knew they were complete sell outs.
Jerry: It ain’t the barcodes fault, but it’s become the symbol or the glyph of technology we’re afraid of or don’t understand or being a cog in a wheel in a larger monolithic machine, the matrix if you will.
Roman: Oh, I will. Jerry Whiting.
Jerry: My name is Jerry Whiting. I’m the founder of Azalea Software here in Seattle, Washington. I’ve been writing software that prints barcodes for 25 years now. They aren’t bad, they aren’t good. They’re just tools, but most people look at them and don’t even know where to start.
Roman: So let’s demystify for a minute and look at what’s inside the barcode. Again, what we’re talking about here is the UPC barcode that George Laurer invented. This is the barcode that you and I and everyone in the world has had the most interaction with.
Katie: The UPC barcode is divided into two halves. It’s actually two barcodes sitting right next to each other. You can see this visually because there are these longer bars that come down in the middle and on each side. Those are called the guard bars. The guard bars tell the scanner that the code is starting and ending.
Jerry: The left half of the barcode tells you who the manufacturer is, and the right half tells you which particular product it is.
Katie: This was something I didn’t realize. The scanner is reading both the light and the dark lines.
George: To understand the scanner, just consider yourself in a dark room where the wall behind you has bars painted on it. And you took a flashlight and shined it over your head, across the bars. You would see the room get a little lighter when you were over the white bars, and it would get dark when it was over the dark bars.
Roman: Black lines that don’t reflect the laser light back to the scanner register as a one, white lines equals zero. They’re actually 95 evenly spaced columns on a UPC barcode. A thick black line is actually a bunch of ones right next to each other. The computer adds all that together and you get a string of 12 numbers.
George: This number goes to the computer. The computer now looks up in its table to get the information such as what is the product? How much they’re charging for it? But that is not in the barcode. The only thing that’s in the barcode is where the computer should look.
Katie: This number is also printed below the barcode just in case the scanner isn’t working, which for me really makes the whole mystery a little anticlimactic. I mean, it’s right there.
Jerry: So when most people until recently thought of barcodes, they thought of something that was a combination of bars and stripes. More recently, two-dimensional barcodes which are– they look like crossword puzzles, have emerged, and most popular being QR barcodes, quick response, that are scanned by cell phones.
Roman: We’ve all seen these and maybe a few of us have actually bothered to pull out our cell phones and download the app required to scan them.
Katie: Yeah, there’s something about them that I find kind of lame or annoying, you know It’s like, “No, Chili’s, I don’t want more info on the blooming onion.”
Roman: Well, if you did, you might know that the blooming onion is from Outback.
Katie: So anyway, I googled, “Why are QR codes lame?” And I got a bunch of articles basically saying they’re actually really useful. They’re just being misused.
Roman: Mostly by advertisers who just started slapping them on every single thing.
Katie: But Jerry Whiting, he still believes in them.
Jerry: The nice thing about QR barcodes is they are not just a lookup number to an external database. Yes, it can be a chunk of text. It can be a URL. It can be a whole lot of different things, but there is no central authority that tells you what or how to do anything.
Katie: Meaning you don’t have to go through GS1 to get a QR code, which lets people do stuff like make a giant picture of Amy Goodman’s face entirely out of QR codes.
Male: This is my QR code Amy Goodman portrait made with 2,304 unique QR codes that link to nine years of Democracy Now videos.
Roman: Besides the QR code, Laurer and Woodland’s original barcodes have spawned a bunch of other barcodes. They’re used for all sorts of things.
Katie: There’s code 128, which is mostly used for packaging and shipping. There’s Postnet which is used by the post office to sort mail. There are barcodes that use radio frequencies to send out data. They’re called RFID tags and they aren’t really barcodes at all. They just get put in the same category because like barcodes they’re being used to keep track of inventory.
Roman: With a grocery cart full of RFID-tagged items one could conceivably wheel their cart through a big hoop that would read all the contents all at once, basically eliminating the checkout line entirely and allowing more people to pass through stores even more quickly so that we can all buy more stuff.
Katie: Barcodes help us keep track of prescriptions, library books, luggage, and injured animals. There are so many barcodes on so many things that according to Jerry Whiting–
Jerry: When future archaeologists come across remnants of our backward-ass civilization, and they stumble across a barcode, they’re going to assign it religious significance if they don’t understand the supply chain.
George: We had no idea how far it was going to go. We thought it would stay just within the grocery industry.
Roman: But of course, it didn’t just stay in the grocery industry. It actually went way beyond that, all the way to conspiracy. There is, in fact, a silly conspiracy theory that all barcodes have the number of the beast ‘666’ encoded into them.
Katie: Yeah, it has to do with those guard bars that come at the beginning, middle and end of every bar code. It’s basically true that there are three sixes coded into the guard bars. The answer to why is a bit technical. You can read about it on George Laurer’s personal website in the FAQ section if you want, but as exhibit B, I submit George himself.
George: Well, hello, I’m George J. Laurer.
Katie: After we were done with our interview, he was talking a little bit more about his job at IBM.
George: And then when I’d come home at night I– “Oh, I have a tough day.” Oh, my poor wife was taking care of four kids.
Katie: And then he started talking about his wife and his kids.
George: She had the hard job, believe me. She gave up her career, which was a teaching career in order to take care of the kids, and believe me, we are so proud of those kids. Really, they are. You just couldn’t ask for better kids. So this was because my wife spent her career raising those kids. I’m just so lucky.
Katie: I don’t know. Does that sound like a Satan worshiper to you guys?
George: My daughter has a bachelor’s degree–
Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Katie Mingle, with Sam Greenspan, Avery Trufelman and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks to Jenny Morgan for production help. We are a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and produced of the offices of Arc Sign, an architecture firm in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.
George: — master’s degree and engineering from Charlotte. Our youngest son has a PhD from State–