Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hitting the check-out stand

Norman Joseph Woodland who claimed to have written a few lines in the sand, and eventually sparked a revolution has died at 91;

Woodland worked with university classmate Bernard Silver to create the now ubiquitous thick-and-thin-line system in the 1940s.
The system was patented in the US in 1952, a patent that was later sold for just $15,000 (£9,300).
The modern-day barcode is estimated to be scanned more than five billion times every day.
....Woodland's efforts were years ahead of their time. It took 22 years for the invention to make its first appearance in a US shop - due to the fact the laser technology required to read the lines did not exist.
What this story doesn't tell is how, once the technology did come into existence, it was applied to retailing.  That happened because a young junior executive at AT&T in New York was given, in the late 1960s, as his first assignment, to find a way to make some money from the agriculture sector.

At the time, most grocery stores didn't even have business telephone lines.  They used a pay phone located in the store for their occasional communication needs.  Mostly the stores re-ordered by mail, after eye-balling their inventory (both on their shelves and the back rooms).

The control of that inventory being the major headache of everyone involved in the food distribution business.  The young executive realized that AT&T had the communications technology, and IBM the computers, to solve that problem.

Cooperation between those two mid-century corporate giants was not easy.  In part because of anti-trust concerns (which also delayed the automotive industry's adoption of this cost-saving measure).  But, in the end, the profit motive was strong enough to overcome inertia, and consumers all over the world benefit.

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