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Universal Product Bar Code turns 30

The Universal Product Code turned 30 this week. The U.P.C. is a unique combination of black and white lines that can identify virtually anything from a bar of soap to medical prescriptions. VOA's Mil Arcega reports on a technological innovation that has revolutionized global commerce.

When Marsh Supermarket store cashier Sharon Buchanan scanned a pack of Wrigley's spearmint gum 30 years ago, she had no idea she was marking a technological milestone. "I don't think any of us realized at the time how far this was going to go. The fact that we were first in the world, we had no idea that was going on either."

The rest, as they say, is history. Three decades later, the Universal Product Code -- U.P.C. for short -- is stamped on everything from floral arrangements to home hardware. GS1 US, the organization that administers U.P.C. standards, estimates bar codes are scanned about 10 billion times a day around the world. GS1 President Michael Di Yeso says the technology, which was developed in the early 1970s by the U.S. grocery industry, is now used by manufacturers and retailers in more than 150 countries.

"I think it became obvious early on that as the scanning process took place and computers were capturing information, that information could be used beyond just price checks,” he said. “They began to use that information for inventory control and sharing that information back with their suppliers to improve availability of products on their shelves."

Although it took several years to gain acceptance, GS1 believes the system of 59 black and white bars has quickened the pace of commerce and saved consumers more than a trillion dollars. The system continues to evolve. Di Yeso says "Reduced Face Symbology," which reduces the bar codes to very small patterns, is now playing a major role in the health industry.

"The same technology that was invented 30-years ago that helped people move through the grocery line faster, is now saving lives in hospitals all across North America, but also in other parts of the world as well," he said.

In 2003, GS1 developed a new standard, the Electronic Product Code, which uses wireless technology and can transmit product information over the Internet.

"We believe very strongly that once the electronic product code begins to seed itself into both retail, manufacturing, health care and other supply chains, the benefits the electronic product code will provide, will eclipse the benefits that I talked about earlier from the U.P.C. bar code," Di Yeso said.

Whatever the future brings, the U.P.C.'s contributions to global commerce have already been immortalized in the Smithsonian Museum of American History -- along with a 30-year-old pack of chewing gum.