George J. Laurer, whose invention of the Universal Product Code at IBM transformed retail and other industries around the world, has died. He was 94 and died at his home in Wendell, North Carolina, the AP reports. Laurer was an electrical engineer with IBM in North Carolina's Research Triangle Park in the early 1970s when he spearheaded development of the UPC, or bar code. The now-ubiquitous marking, composed of unique black bars and a 12-digit number, allowed retailers to identify products and their prices as they are scanned, usually at checkout. Laurer said in 2010 that grocery stores at the time were dealing with soaring costs and the labor-intensive requirements of putting price tags on all of their products. The bar code led to fewer pricing errors and allowed retailers to keep better account of their inventory. Today, UPCs are on all kinds of products, services, and other items for identification.
An IBM colleague, Joseph Woodland, had patented a bar code in 1952. "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, per the News & Observer. That's essentially what it is, he said: "a Morse code for reading a label." The idea didn't go far until Laurer started working on a scanable code. Laurer later produced a patent for a hand-held scanner for reading bar codes, according to a funeral home obituary. IBM named him in its centennial celebration a contributor to one of the company's 100 iconic moments. Laurer said he remained in awe of the invention, which was celebrated on its 25th anniversary at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
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