Home history George Laurer George Laurer
The IBM electrical engineer who developed the ubiquitous Universal Product Code, which would revolutionize commerce
George Laurer in 1987

Tinkerer. Big Fat Lug. Maverick. George Laurer was called many things throughout his life, but “inventor” seems the most apropos. The IBM engineer led a team in the development of the Universal Product Code, or UPC, the ubiquitous barcode symbol that sped up checkout queues everywhere, transformed inventory management and the flow of global commerce, and streamlined not only the grocery business, but entire industries, ranging from logistics and travel to healthcare.

The question of how to automate supermarket checkouts had been vexing scholars and industry leaders for years before Laurer came along. Faced with exploding labor costs, retailers and packaged goods manufacturers challenged computer companies in 1970 to create a standard machine-readable symbol to streamline checkouts and improve inventory management. It was Laurer’s preferred practice to seek out the core of any problem, find the element that prevented a solution — and overcome it. This approach proved pivotal in developing the UPC. He abandoned the highly touted circular design in favor of a simple, elegant rectangle that he insisted could be reliably printed and scaled.

Laurer’s design overcame initial skepticism and paved the way in the following decades for a more transparent global supply chain built around RFID tags, QR codes, advanced analytics, predictive maintenance and machine learning.

Laurer’s design overcame initial skepticism and paved the way in the following decades for a more transparent global supply chain
Finding his way
A newspaper ad leads to a 36-year career

Laurer was born on September 23, 1925, in Manhattan, and raised in New Jersey and Baltimore. He was a tinkerer from early on, whether that meant experimenting with radios and model planes or building wooden outrigger boats from fruit baskets to sail in the local park. He survived polio as a teen, only to be drafted in 11th grade to serve in World War II. After being discharged, Laurer attended a radio and TV repair school, but an instructor encouraged him to get his GED and go to college. He graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in electrical engineering in 1951. Confronted with a tight job market, he headed north to apply for positions at GE, RCA Westinghouse and “an obscure company called IBM,” after his father had seen a want ad for electrical engineers.

Laurer’s father, who held degrees in engineering and law, sold composition mallets to machine shops to get by during the Great Depression. His mother also worked, providing day care. Watching their struggles had a huge impact. “I learned that a job was something to treasure,” Laurer said.

IBM offered him USD 80 a week in the summer of 1951 for a position in Industry and Custom Systems. Without previous field or extensive factory experience, he was confounded by an initial assignment to “Write an MES to install a pin feed platen on a 101 in the field.” But he listened to colleagues and took copious notes — a process that he would lean on heavily throughout his 36-year career. It enabled him to delve into problems with circuits, diodes and test mark sensing technology, and produce 26 patents.

Laurer worked his way up the ranks, eventually becoming senior engineer in 1969 at IBM’s Research Triangle Park in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Standing firm
A more reliable design wins out

Soon after this move, Laurer was enlisted to spearhead IBM’s response to the call for a better checkout system. Company executives suggested he present a version of a design that Bernard Silver and Joseph Woodland had invented (and sold to RCA) nearly 20 years earlier, a bull’s-eye of concentric circles. But Laurer refused. “[My boss] wanted me to write something up that said the RCA proposal was the greatest thing since sex,” he recalled, “but my nature and my training would not allow me to support something I didn’t believe in.”

Laurer had identified the circular design’s fatal flaw — it could easily smudge when printed — and conceived a linear barcode with a series of vertical lines instead. He also worked with his team to develop a coding system and a prototype scanner that would allow their symbol to be small, information-dense and scannable from any direction. “I was truly playing ‘bet your job,’” he recalled. In a demonstration for IBM executives, his team had their “ace softball pitcher pitch beanbag ash trays, with symbols on the bottom, as fast as he could over the scanner.” The accuracy and speed of the scans combined for, quite literally, a winning pitch.

The Ad Hoc Committee on a Uniform Grocery Product Code approved the design pending a few tweaks. And the Universal Product Code was officially born on April 1, 1973. Consisting of 30 black bars that could be scanned by lasers in a point-of-sale system, it would enable the speedy movement of products — far faster than a human could read prices and depress cash register keys — while greatly reducing the costs of labor and human error.

In retirement
Sharing engineering insights

Many assume his barcode made Laurer wealthy, but neither he nor IBM patented the design. If he felt a sense of lost opportunity, he never said so publicly. In his memoir about his IBM career, Engineering Was Fun, he writes wistfully about diving into technical problems like the UPC. He expresses the pride he felt at wearing the IBM uniform (blue suit, white shirt), the amusement of staging office pranks, and the camaraderie he felt with colleagues who gave him nicknames like “Big Fat Lug,” based on his amateur radio call sign K2BFL.

After his retirement in 1987, Laurer traveled frequently with his wife, Marilyn, in their RV. He also spent time building a solar array in his front yard with his grandson. During their travels, Marilyn would tell store clerks that her husband invented the code they were scanning. Laurer, meanwhile, was “always amazed” at what he and his team had achieved. “The UPC is very unique,” he wrote. “It changed the game.”

Laurer was honored in 1980 with IBM’s Corporate Technical Achievement Award and inducted into the University of Maryland Engineering Innovation Hall of Fame in 1991 and the University of Maryland Alumni Hall of Fame in 2000. He received the prestigious School of Engineering’s 125th Anniversary Medal on November 21, 2019. He died in December that year at age 94.

“He basically never owned anything he didn’t customize or tweak to better serve his needs,” his son Craig Laurer told NPR. “He was always coming up with something. He was humble and really generous, and he just hit it off with everybody.”

He basically never owned anything he didn’t customize or tweak to better serve his needs Craig Laurer George’s son
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