50th Scanniversary: A History of the First UPC Barcode Scan

June 20, 2024

The following article first appeared in This Local Life and is re-published here with permission.

By Judy Deeter

Scanning a UPC (Universal Product Code) barcode is the way items are now sold in retail shops around the world. These days, it is not only the store employee who scans the UPC barcode, but often the customer. The sale of a ten-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Gum in 1974 at the Troy Marsh Supermarket (located at 982 North Market Street-now the Needlers store) played an important role in the history of UPC barcode scanning. The scanning of the gum was the first time in the world that a UPC barcode was scanned to sell a product. An article in the Dayton Daily News on June 26, 1974 (“Scanner Sensation” by Benjamin Kline) says, “In an instant, the world changed. Starting here in Miami County.”

The UPC barcode scanning system was developed so that retail store management could track product inventory, re-order merchandise in a timely manner, and immediately know which items were selling and those that were staying on store shelves. Historical records indicate that research to find a way to improve grocery store inventory management and store checkout was about a 25-year process, which started in the late 1940s.

The Universal Product Code symbols used in bar code scanning were approved by the Universal Code Council in May 1973. The Council is a non-profit organization that creates and promotes universal requirements for items manufactured by various companies. The Council has locations in Washington Township in Dayton and in Princeton, New Jersey. It assigns the UPC barcode product code numbers and administers technical standards.

The historic Marsh Supermarket scan took place at 8:01 a.m. on June 26, 1974. On that morning Clyde Dawson, Marsh’s Director of Research and Development, reached into a shopping cart filled with potential products to be scanned and chose a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Gum. While those watching Dawson’s selection of the gum thought it was just a random choice, Dawson later said that he purposely chose the gum in appreciation of the work Wrigley had done on the UPC barcode. The gum was one of only a few store items to have a pre-printed barcode on its package. Store products without a pre-printed UPC barcode on the label had to have information code numbers from the UPC barcode entered into the store computer system before a scan could be made. Pre-packaged products without a preprinted barcode had temporary UPC barcode labels attached to them. The night before the scan, Marsh store employees placed temporary UPC barcode labels on every pre-packaged item in the store.

Marsh employee Sharon Buchannan was chosen to make the first scan. She did it at a store check stand using a newly installed scanning system, the NCR (National Cash Register) Electronic System 255. In fact, it was NCR that chose the Troy Marsh Supermarket for the scanning project. NCR is said to have chosen the Marsh store because it represented a typical American grocery store and it was near the NCR Headquarters in Dayton, the company’s research facility in Cambridge, Ohio, and Hobart Corporation Headquarters in Troy.

The exterior of Marsh, where the first-ever UPC scan took place in 1974.

Using the new technology at Marsh. (Photo courtesy of Dayton History)

Clyde Dawson, Marsh Supermarket Director of Research and Development in 1974, is the man who chose Wrigley chewing gum as the first item to be scanned with a UPC in the world, thus also making him the first UPC customer. (Photo courtesy of Dayton History)

It has been reported that the price of the package of gum was 67 cents. In 2009, a ten-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit made in 1974 was scanned at a Marsh Store check stand. In 2009, the gum price rang up as 69 cents. It has been said that the Wrigley company price was always 69 cents, but in 1974 Marsh Supermarket had a 2-cent discount on the gum. Thus, on June 26, 1974, it was sold for 67 cents.

Hobart Corporation also played an important role in the Marsh Supermarket scanning project that day. Hobart Corporation’s engineers at its Dayton Scale plant designed the Hobart 3000 weighing, wrapping and labeling system to scan random weight items such as meats, fruits and vegetables. Because a barcode could not be placed on those items, Hobart Corporation developed a way to weigh and wrap variable weight items so that a UPC barcode could be placed on such items with the use of a label. Variable weight items could then be scanned at the store check stand. The Hobart system was known as the Hobart 3000.

A story published in the Troy Daily News on June 26, 1974 (“Local Marsh store features computerized check-out system” by Kermit Vandiver) describes the importance of the Hobart 3000. It says, “One sidelight to the Hobart aspect of the new system is that meat labels will now be standardized in accordance with the recommendations of the National Livestock and Meat Board…T-bones, sirloins, and Porterhouses (steaks), for example, will be labeled as such and not under such names as ‘pullman steaks,’ ‘patio steaks.’ Etc.”

In 2009, former Hobart Corporation company employee Charles Fay, who worked on the Marsh scanning project, wrote a manuscript about the project titled “The World’s First Instore UPC Bar Code was printed by Hobart Corp.” Fay was a company training supervisor for weighing, labeling and wrapping. According to Fay’s manuscript, “In June of 1974 Hobart Corp. of Troy set up equipment and printed the first Instore Universal Product Code (UPC) bar code label at Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio. Hobart printed the UPC labels in the meat and produce departments.” The printers for the labels were manufactured by Intermec Corporation near Seattle, Washington. In his manuscript, Fay gives a detailed description of how the printers worked.

Sharon Buchannan at the 35th anniversary event. 35 years earlier, she was the first person to make a scan for a UPC purchase. (Photos from the Troy Historical Society)

Marsh Supermarket meat wrapper Becky Hathaway uses a Hobart 3000 to weigh, wrap and label store items with UPC codes. (Photo courtesy of Dayton History)

Steve Overmyer, who worked for Marsh Supermarkets in research and development, and was involved in the Marsh scanning projects, has confirmed that the scanning and labeling of variable weight items also took place on June 26, 1974, after the scanning of the Wrigley’s gum. He has also said that individuals involved in the scanning projects were given workspace in areas near the store. They did not have workspace inside the store during the projects.

A 50th anniversary observance is being planned for June 26, 2024, at Sherwood Plaza, the shopping center site of the former Marsh Supermarket. The Ohio History Connection has approved the placing of an Ohio historical marker commemorating the scanning of the first UPC barcode in a retail sale for the center. It is hoped that the historical marker can be dedicated on June 26th.
Sponsors of the historical marker are: The Troy Historical Society, ITW Food Equipment Group-Hobart, The Troy Foundation, Sherwood of Troy, LLC and the Ohio History Connection.

The June 26th anniversary date of the scan is known among those involved in UPC barcode scanning history as the “Scanniversary” date.