George J. Laurer, whose design of the vertically striped bar code sped supermarket checkout lines, parcel deliveries and assembly lines and even transformed humans, including airline passengers and hospital patients, into traceable inventory items, died Dec. 5 at his home in Wendell, North Carolina, near Raleigh. He was 94.
His death was confirmed by his son Craig.
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 chewing gum at a Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio. (One of the original scanners is at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History; the package of gum was bought and retained by a Marsh executive.)
“It was cheap and it was needed,” Laurer told The New York Times in 2009. “And it is reliable.”
And it revolutionized commerce.
The bar code had evolved over several decades, a product of several collaborators and some fluky coincidences.
The first to lend his expertise was N. Joseph Woodland, an alumnus of the Manhattan Project, developer of the atomic bomb. As an undergraduate at what is now Drexel University in Philadelphia, he had perfected an efficient system for playing music in elevators and planned to market it commercially until his father intervened, insisting that the elevator music industry was controlled by organized crime.
Woodland was earning a master’s degree at Drexel in the late 1940s when a supermarket executive visiting the university’s engineering school urged students there to develop a practical means of digitally storing product data. With a classmate, Bernard Silver, Woodland devised a circular symbol resembling a bull’s-eye in which the information could be encoded. But they were ahead of their time: Commercial scanners and microprocessors that could interpret the code were not yet widely available.
In 1951, after abandoning a planned career as a television repairman, Laurer joined IBM, where he was asked to design a code for food labels modeled on the Woodland-Silver bull’s-eye and compatible with a new generation of optical scanners. But he found that the circular symbol was too blurry when reproduced on high-speed printing presses; instead, he developed a rectangular design, with 95 bits of data in binary code containing consumer product information.
Enter Alan L. Haberman, a supermarket executive who headed the Uniform Grocery Product Code Council, which had been organized to choose a universal product code symbol. He favored Laurer’s design, but the members of his committee were split.
Haberman reconciled their differences over dinner at a San Francisco restaurant and then invited them to a screening of the X-rated film “Deep Throat.” In April 1973, the committee unanimously voted for the bar code that has appeared on billions of items since. (The original carried an 11-digit formula — six identifying the manufacturer and five identifying the product; a 12th digit was added later as a check.)
The bar code increased the speed of checkout lines by some 40%, eliminated labor-intensive placement of price tags on every product, and resulted in fewer register errors and more efficient inventory controls. But Laurer often said that he was amazed at how omnipresent it became.
The code even made a cameo appearance in presidential politics and became lodged in urban legend.
During the 1992 primary campaign, it was widely reported, in The New York Times and elsewhere, that President George Bush was so out of touch with average Americans that he was baffled by a supermarket bar code scanner he encountered at a grocers’ convention. (It turned out to be a prototype of an advanced version that was not yet commonly available.)
Some fundamentalist Christians have also noted that the so-called three guard bars at the beginning, end and middle of the code resemble the numeral 6, suggesting the number 666, which the Book of Revelation links to an apocalypse.
“It is simply a coincidence,” Laurer said, “like the fact that my first, middle and last name all have six letters.”
George Joseph Laurer III was born on Sept. 23, 1925, in Manhattan. His father was a lawyer who became a Navy electrical engineer. His mother, Irma (Rudiger) Laurer, provided day care.
George was raised in New Jersey and Baltimore, contracted polio as a teenager and was drafted into the Army during World War II before he had finished high school.
Discharged as a technical sergeant, he was collecting unemployment checks when he enrolled in a radio and TV repair course. After one year, he was persuaded by his instructor to quit, take a high school equivalency exam and enroll in college.
He graduated from the University of Maryland with a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering in 1951. He also earned amateur radio and private pilot’s licenses.
He married Marilyn Slocum in 1954. She died in 2013. In addition to his son Craig, he is survived by two other sons, Mark and Jonathan; a daughter, Debra Laurer Cook; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His sister, Alma Laurer Albert, died earlier.
He worked for IBM at the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina until 1987. He received 26 patents, including one for a hand-held scanner that reads bar codes.
But he earned no royalties from the bar code; IBM did not patent it.
From the beginning, he said, the biggest challenge was to make each printed bar code, along with the optical and laser technology that scanned it, more reliable than a human cashier.
“We learned that people will forgive the cute little grocery store clerk if she mischarges by a few cents,” he said. “If the clerk charges you 97 cents instead of 79 cents, no big deal — that’s OK, it’s no real problem. But we don’t forgive computers, no matter how bad they are.”