Answer: A Pack of Wrigley’s Juice Fruit Gum
In the late 1940s, Bernard Silver, a graduate student at the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia, overheard the president of a local grocery chain talking to the dean of his department about his desire for a system to easily code product data and speed up the checkout process. Silver was curious about the idea, told his friend Joe Woodland about it, and together, they immediately started working on potential solutions.
After several false starts involving various ideas like UV ink (too expensive and too quick to fade), they focused on a method inspired by the simplicity of Morse code. That system would evolve over a year of testing into the early stages of what we now know as the barcode—Woodland and Silver filed for the patent in 1949. Over the next decade, they pitched the system to various companies with limited success—this included marketing the system to IBM where Woodland was working at the time.
The barcode as we now know it, the Universal Product Code (UPC), didn’t begin its rise to ubiquity until after a series of retail tests at the behest of the National Association of Food Chains in the mid 1960s. Even then, the barcode only appeared on a commercial product after nearly a decade of testing.
Finally, the now ubiquitous barcode had its debut with the public. On June 26, 1974, at a Marsh’s Supermarket in Troy, Ohio—one of the test stores used by the NAFC—Clyde Dawson purchased a multi-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum which was scanned by cashier Sharon Buchanan. That multi-pack of gum kicked off the commercialization and widespread adoption of the barcode and, a quarter century after its invention, finally brought together the grocery chain president’s problem with a workable solution. The bundle of Wrigley’s gum and the receipt are on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institute.