Barcode inventor dies

How did George Laurer's invention work to revolutionise retail?
17 December 2019

Interview with 

Peter Cowley, Angel Investor


an image of a barcode on the side of a can


Barcodes are everywhere, to the point where you probably don't notice them...until you're stuck with a nasty bill, or you have to find them on an item you want to scan yourself. But, this week, a pioneer of barcode technology, George Laurer died at age 94. Reflecting on how lines of black and white equate to a loaf of bread and George Laurer’s world-changing invention, angel investigator and tech commentator Peter Cowley joined Adam Murphy and Chris Smith...

Peter - We all know what a barcode looks like, because we see that on retail products and they're basically a set of vertical lines. They're black lines of varying widths and they're actually, if you look closely at it, you'll see the white lines and also of varying widths. There's four different widths of black and white and that together they make up a code. That code is on a retail product, the variety of barcodes from a linear one dimensional barcode here, the variety they make, there's 100 billion combinations here, so that's obviously a great deal. Some of that'll be the manufacturer or the distributor, but it'll be the product code as well. So a device actually looks at this and converts it to a number which is also printed on anyway in case a barcode is not readable. So a checkout operator potentially could type that in. So, basically encoding a set of numeric digits or possibly alphanumeric characters into a set of vertical lines.

Adam - How did we end up with these set of lines? How do they get invented and how did they end up in shops?

Peter - Yes, George Laurer, and in fact a guy called Joe Woodland who died a few years ago, in the early fifties produced something loosely based on Morse code. If you think about it, on off, on off, if you know Morse code. And, apparently, he was walking along a beach at one point and he drew lines in the sand and from that he decided that's a great way of doing it. The initial barcodes actually were circular, but they found that the printers in those days, in the early seventies, weren't good enough, so they just turned into the linear ones. What happened was the national association of food chains in the States decided they want to encode somehow and so they put out a tender and a number of people went in there and in fact in the end it was IBM that won this and these two people, George and Joe, worked for that. The first retail barcode was scanned in in 1974 - it was a packet of chewing gum, apparently!

Adam - Wow, now, you can't scan a barcode without a barcode scanner? How do those work?

Peter - Actually you can. I've been around barcodes for 35 years and there is something which I think sent to lead to a five which you can actually read. Super geeky, but generally, have you looked at the UPC in front of me here? Which UPC Universal product code, I can't read that. The original reading was done and I have, I go back long enough, I remember buying these things; there was a wand and the end of the wand was a light source and there was a receptor and you pulled it across with your hand across it, it would read light, dark, light, dark and the timing which would give you the width of the whites and the width of the blacks and that's then your code, you send it back to some sort of computer system that's worked it out.

Chris - Didn't you have to therefore make sure you drew it at a very standard rate, then, Peter? If it was the timing?

Peter - No, it worked it out - I mean obviously if you'd stop, start, stop, start, it wouldn't work - but, generally, the hand, it's only an inch or so, you know, across 32 millimetres. And so that was possible. That would damage of course damage the paper, because you were actually pressing on it. So the CCD - charged coupled device - arrived, which read the whole lot at once, either with ambient light or with its own LED. And the ones we see in the supermarkets now, have a laser diode, and it's got a rotating mirror or prism, which then scans it very rapidly.

Chris - And, sorry to interrupt, but, I'm fascinated by that. So in there, basically, that laser beam is scanning backwards and forwards. How is it reading? Is it that the laser bounces off of the white bits but not the black bits?

Peter - Exactly, exactly. And then there's the face receptor. Exactly. Yeah.

Adam - And now, you mentioned there were circular barcodes, but what other kinds of barcodes can you have?

Peter - Well, the linear ones, these are the one dimensional ones, there are about 30 odd and they store usually 20 or maximum 30 characters, sometimes less than that. But of course many of us have now seen the 2D barcodes. There are about 40 different types of two D barcodes. These are the ones that look like a dot matrix and matrix with lots of dots and these can store several thousand characters. They've got much greater resilience, and I've got a barcode here, which you won't see on the radio with a picture of my face, which is actually a link to my LinkedIn profile. My face takes up a lot of the middle of the thing and it still reads perfectly because there's a lot of resilience and redundancy in a 2D barcode.

Adam - I remember when I was walking around Dublin on Sunday at a literary festival, they had copies that would let you link to James Joyce's Ulysses that you could download. But I didn't because I was suspicious of how safe they were.

Peter - Absolutely, there are all kinds of ways of sending you to the wrong website, which could be malicious, could be a phishing website. There's a potential there of premium rate texts being sent from that. There's also, there's not really the possibility of executing illegal code. That's okay. But certainly, I would never recommend scanning something that, unless you know what it is. It's like putting something in your mouth when you don't know what it is, isn't it? You wouldn't do that. Can I just very briefly mention RFID? That's the next stage. So this is where there's a chip. These things are obviously more expensive because there's some technology there. They actually put them in Japanese bank notes. So there's a chip in each one in the metal Stripe. So they have to be very cheap. But generally that is probably the future of bar codes, when the price can be got right.

Chris - They work a bit different, don't they, in that the way they work is that there's a signal sent from a device which then effectively gives energy to the thing that's in the product, which then does a bit of processing and sends back a signal which is unique to that product.

Peter - Yeah, exactly. Yeah, but that's hidden and also, you can write to that device as well.

Chris - And obviously, the power of that is, unlike the barcode you've got in front of you, which someone's physically got to scan, these things basically they'll respond whenever their wake up call is transmitted anywhere near them.

Peter - There's a problem with people's privacy and the fact that you supposedly can read them into your pocket from a distance across the road.

Chris - And the problem I have, which is I always seem to set these things off when leaving shops, despite the fact I have not stolen anything.

Peter - Well, exactly, let's talk about that later, Chris.

Chris - No comment!


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