Great Engineers & Scientists Blog

Great Engineers & Scientists

In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton wrote "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants." In this blog, we take Newton's words to heart, and recognize the many great engineers and scientists upon whose shoulders we stand.

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George Laurer, Father of the UPC

Posted June 26, 2007 4:02 PM by Steve Melito

George Laurer is a former IBM engineer who developed the universal product code (UPC), a bar code symbology which has revolutionized supermarket shopping. During his 36-year career with International Business Machines (IBM), Laurer earned 25 patents and published 20 technical disclosure bulletins, publications which IBM once used to prevent rivals from patenting emerging technologies. He is also the recipient of IBM's Raleigh Inventor of the Year Award (1976) and a member of the University of Maryland's Engineering Hall of Fame.

Early Life

George Laurer was born on September 23, 1925. As a freshman at Forest Park High School in Baltimore, Maryland, he contracted polio, an acute infectious disease which causes muscle weakness and paralysis. Laurer recovered slowly, and was still in the 11th grade when he was drafted by the U.S. Army during World War II. He rose to the rank of Technical Sergeant, but returned home as a member of the "52-20 club", a nickname for unemployed veterans who received a weekly stipend of $20 for 52 weeks.

Unhappy with his postwar life, Laurer enrolled at a technical school to learn how to repair radios and televisions. After completing a successful first year of study, he was advised to attend college instead. With help from an instructor who recognized Laurer's academic potential, George passed the high school equivalence exam and was admitted to the University of Maryland. He graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in Electrical Engineering (BSEE) in 1961.

From Endicott to RTP

After college, George Laurer joined IBM as a junior engineer at Big Blue's plant in Endicott, New York. He rose through the ranks to become a senior engineer, and then served as an engineering manager for 15 years. During his time at Endicott, Laurer received U.S. patents for a drum storage system and a card-to-tape converter. He wanted to return to the technical side of engineering, however, and decided to make a change.

In 1969, Laurer was transferred to IBM's four-year old facility in Research Triangle Park (RTP), North Carolina. Working as a scientist, he reached Raleigh in time for a tall order from a trade organization called the Uniform Grocery Product Code Council (UGPCC). In conjunction with the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm, the UPGCC submitted a request for proposal (RFP) for a numeric format for product identification. IBM's competitors included RCA, which had already installed a barcode scanning system at a Kroger store in Cincinnati; National Cash Register Corporation, a specialist in retail systems; and Pitney Bowes, a leading provider of mailing equipment.

The Challenge

Unlike its competitors, IBM had yet to develop optical codes or a laser scanning system. Nevertheless, George Laurer rose to the challenge. After determining that Delta B barcodes were too large for retail applications, Laurer experimented with patent-pending Delta C codes. Because of the way in which these new barcodes were read, they were less sensitive to degradation caused by the printing process. Delta C barcodes were also four times denser than Delta B barcodes. Using Delta C codes as a model, Laurer then created 1 in. x 1.5 in. UPC barcodes that were 50 times smaller than the RCA bull's eye. Laurer's labels also featured both human-readable and machine-readable data.

Although George Laurer is widely regarded as the father of the universal product code (UPC), the contributions of his IBM co-workers played an important role. Heard Baumeister, a mechanical engineer, designed the laser scanner that read UPC bar codes whose lines were longer than they were wide. Bill Crouse, a circuit designer, arranged two line-scanning mirrors which, when held at right angles to each other, created a reflection that traced an "X" on a flat surface. Armed with this new X-scanner, Laurer was able to shorten his UPC bar codes dramatically. Jack Jones, another IBM engineer, helped Crouse build a wand which was demonstrated during IBM's presentation to the UPGCC on December 1, 1972.

After requesting some additional modifications, the UPGCC adopted IBM's bar code symbology as its new standard on April 1, 1973. A year later, on June 26, 1974, shopper Clyde Dawson handed cashier Sharon Buchanan a 10-pack of chewing gum at the Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio. When the gum rang up at 67 cents, an era in supermarket shopping was born.



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Join Date: Mar 2005
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Re: George Laurer, Father of the UPC

06/27/2007 11:25 AM

One of the offbeat topics I discovered while researching this piece was from the Q & A section of Mr. Laurer's web site. In November of 2000, he stopped answering questions about a purported relationship between UPC barcodes and the "number of the beast" from the Bible's Book of Revelation. Laurer did, however, record his answers to a few 666 questions on his web site.

Laurer's accomplishments were not as significant as Galileo's, of course, but both had their critics . . .


Join Date: Oct 2007
Posts: 1

Re: George Laurer, Father of the UPC

10/19/2007 4:52 PM

What they did:

Heard Baumeister made the most significant technical contributions to the UPC. In the first half of 1972, after many months of no significant progress by the three engineers assigned to develop a scanner, Baumeister proposed that a straight line bar code could be scanned by an "X" scan if the bars were longer than the distance across the set of bars that needed to be scanned in a single pass. This allowed the label size to be reduced by an area of about three to one as compared to the RCA "bulls eye" with the same readability. The "X" scanner would be only slightly more complex than the straight line scanner for the "bulls eye" since a straight line scan could be converted to an "X" by reflecting it through a "Book Mirror". Baumeister then proposed that the height could be cut nearly in half if the label was split into two halves allowing each half to be scanned separately. This made his label about one sixth the area of the "bulls eye". George Laurer could now start writing a proposal for the UPC. Crouse did not invent the "Book Mirror" but simply help Laurer understand how it worked. Baumeister never designed a complete scanner but did analysis to show the feasibility of the "X" scanner.

Prior to joining the scanner effort Baumeister provided equations to calculate the maximum density of bar codes based on printer and code characteristics.

Paul McEnroe was the third line manager of the IBM Consumer Transaction Systems (CTS) that included the Super Market and Retail point of sale terminals (POST). McEnroe assigned George Laurer to the super market scanner task in late 1969 or early 1970 following his position as keyboard development manager. McEnroe assigned Baumeister to the effort February 26, 1971 at the same time he assigned Bill Crouse to Jack Jones' department to develop a hand held wand for the "Retail" POST. On August 5, 1971 he transferred Crouse to the scanner effort.

McEnroe attended the first half of the UPC proposal presentation in Rochester Minn. but was called back to Raleigh for a personnel problem.

Jack Jones made no useful contributions to the UPC effort. He invented, simultaneously but not jointly with E. G. Nassimbene, the "Double Density" Delta B bar code. Baumeister's equations showed that Delta B could achieve five characters per inch as opposed to seven for the prior Delta A code using the printer tolerances available for the Retail label. Delta A measured and compared the distances from one narrow bar to the next. Delta B eliminated the narrow bar by using the bar edges, comparing the width of bars to the width of spaces. Since the major print error causes bars to spread or contract due to the amount of ink or pressure and thus spaces to vary in the opposite direction, comparing bar widths to space widths resulted in decreased character density.

Crouse proposed his first version of the Delta C code to his manager, Jones. This version used only leading to leading and trailing to trailing edges of bars to encode and read data. He showed how to encode characters but did not provide a complete alphabet. Jones recorded a complete alphabet and wrote up an invention disclosure to be co-signed by Jones and Crouse. This code achieved fifteen characters per inch. Retail wanted twenty. Crouse then improved the code by adding one large leading to leading edge measurement per character as a reference scale. This improved the density to twenty-one characters per inch. Crouse identified a complete alphabet for the new code and submitted an invention disclosure in only his name. IBM chose to combine the two versions into one patent. Only the final version including none of Jones' contributions was ever used.

Jones recommended his Delta B code to Laurer to be used for the UPC proposal. Laurer found that with Delta B the label was far too large. Crouse suggested the use of Delta C which reduced the area by sixteen to one.

Crouse developed a wand, worn like a ring that was used to demonstrate the robustness of the UPC proposal with Delta C. Although Crouse worked for Jones for six months on wands his ring wand was started when he was in Ad Tech and completed in the scanner group with no effort during his stay with Jones.

Laurer used the Delta C code (he configured the alphabet using the teachings of the patent) for the original UPC proposal. Laurer was pressured into changing the code to extend the alphabet by requiring a bar width measurement to distinguish two characters from each of the "left" and "right" character sets and total bar widths for all characters to read their "parity" to determine if they were from the "left" or "right" label halves. Reading bar widths violated the Delta C rule and thus the ability to achieve the higher character density. Laurer once stated that this change was the cause of most of the read failures.

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