This Incredibly Popular Tech Was Nearly a Total Failure. Now It’s Everywhere.

The hype about new technologies often follows a predictable pattern. We’re told a new technology is about to change the world, and then it’s often labeled a failure when it doesn’t make an immediate impact. Take Google Glass, which promised a bold and slightly dorky vision of the future—but ultimately failed in embarrassing fashion. Much of the time that’s where the story ends, and the graveyard of tech history is filled with failed projects. However, some of the most successful technologies in the world followed that same pattern but survived what the research firm Gartner calls the “trough of disillusionment,” and people tend to eventually forget about those initial struggles. Few examples illustrate that pattern more clearly than the modern barcode, a technology that celebrated its 50th birthday in 2023.

Barcodes are one of the most successful technologies in history. More than 6 billion barcodes are scanned each day. They’ve been so omnipresent for so long that most people rarely give them a second thought. I know I didn’t; I’m 41 years old, and I grew up in a world where barcodes were everywhere. They were on almost every product I bought, every ticket I scanned, and every package that ended up on my doorstep. As the podcaster Roman Mars put it, “It’s hard to imagine now, a world without barcodes.”

It wasn’t until I began doing archival research for my book about the cultural history of the barcode that I realized how close we came to living in a world where I wasn’t surrounded by those iconic patterns of vertical black lines. Before barcodes became so embedded in our lives that we barely noticed them, they went through a dramatic “trough of disillusionment” filled with major consumer protests, legislative hearings, and moments of near-catastrophic failure.

Barcode technology was first patented in 1949, but the barcodes we know today have their roots in a 1970s initiative spearheaded by the grocery industry. By the late 1960s, grocery stores faced serious challenges including rising labor costs and struggles with tracking inventory. Barcodes seemed like a possible solution, and the industry created an ad hoc committee in the early 1970s to develop a workable barcode system. The committee created the Universal Product Code (UPC), which is still the data standard used in grocery stores in the United States. The data standard dictates what each number in a barcode represents, but the standard was designed to work with various types of barcode symbols, so the committee then had to decide which type of symbol to use. They narrowed the pool to seven finalists, most of which people today wouldn’t recognize as barcodes. The committee chose IBM’s submission after three years of deliberation, and 50 years later that IBM symbol has become synonymous with the word “barcode.” By 1974, the committee’s work was mostly done, and UPC barcodes were ready to launch.

For a brief period, it seemed like barcodes might make their way onto products without a hitch. On June 26, 1974, the first UPC barcode was scanned on a pack of Wrigley’s gum at a grocery store in Troy, Ohio. The event went well, the barcodes worked, and grocery executives were pleased; however, a storm was already forming on the horizon. Despite years of consulting with various stakeholders, the ad hoc committee had neglected one group in particular: consumers. As a later industry report noted, “consumer concerns had been mishandled and underestimated since the early stages” of planning, an oversight that had serious consequences throughout the 1970s.

The backlash began basically as soon as the UPC launched. In the summer of 1974, The Phil Donahue Show ran an episode warning people that the grocery industry would use barcodes to rip consumers off. The ire only grew from there. In a particularly notable example in late 1974 described by Paul V. McEnroe—an engineer who was involved in the development of the UPC—protestors gathered outside a Giant Supermarket in Tysons Corner, Virginia, that was installing barcode systems and briefly stopped the store from opening. Consumer concerns were so significant that in November 1974, a conference was held at Middlesex College to address the unexpected backlash. The grocery industry had not planned for the consumer pushback. They especially hadn’t planned for Carol Tucker-Foreman, a woman whom grocery executives would later acknowledge was a “formidable adversary” they were ill-prepared to fight—and quite a fight it was.

Tucker-Foreman was the head of the Consumer Federation of America, and she began a nationwide campaign against barcode adoption as soon as the technology was released. In December 1974, she testified in front of the U.S. Senate’s “Symposium on the Universal Product Coding System” and complained that consumers had not been consulted and argued that barcodes would harm customers. Her campaign grew from there, and she gave countless interviews throughout the mid-1970s warning people about barcodes. She even hosted multiple public debates with grocery executives where, according to a 1975 article in the Salt Lake Tribune, they “verbally slugged it out.”

The major controversy about barcode adoption focused on an issue that might seem a bit strange in retrospect: item-level pricing. Before barcodes, every item in a grocery store had a price tag. Tagging each item required significant labor, and one of the primary reasons grocery stores developed the UPC barcode was to remove the labor costs required by item-level pricing and instead put product prices on shelves.

Tucker-Foreman argued the removal of item-level pricing would be a disaster for consumers and, to quote a 1975 interview, would “totally remove the consumer privilege to shop comparatively.” The grocery industry tried to compromise by offering people grease pencils they could use to write prices on items, an idea that, to put it mildly, did not go over well. In a 1975 interview with the Central New Jersey News, Tucker-Foreman derided the grease pencil idea as “typical of the ‘public be damned’ attitude the industry takes. It equates on the PR equivalency scale with ‘let ’em eat cake.’ ”

The CFA’s campaign to preserve item-level pricing and slow barcode adoption got national attention, and other consumer organizations began publishing pamphlets about barcodes with titles like “A New Supermarket Ripoff.” Most importantly, consumer groups began a concerted push for legislation that mandated the preservation of item-level pricing. A few states like California did pass legislation to preserve item-level pricing temporarily.

The grocery industry took the official position that individual stores should choose whether to move to shelf pricing. Behind the scenes, industry executives showed how significant a threat the backlash had become; they organized editorials like a 1978 article in the magazine Fortune that tried to dismiss local protests and boycotts as a “fight with the local luddites” that mostly only happened in stores in “less enlightened areas.”

In retrospect, a battle over whether to put price tags on an item or a shelf might feel rather abstract to those of us who grew up with shelf-level pricing. But the controversy was far from inconsequential to the future of the barcode. Early barcodes and computerized checkout systems were massively expensive and cost roughly $250,000 per store to install. Even the most optimistic estimates predicted it would take a grocery store about three years to recoup the costs of the system through reduced labor and inventory costs.

Consequently, the only way barcodes could be viable was if companies saved enough money to justify the cost of the systems. The president of Giant Food, Joseph Danzansky, made that point explicit in 1976 testimony where he said that laws preserving item-level pricing would impact whether grocery stores stuck with plans to adopt barcodes and computerized checkout. Consequently, if consumer groups had succeeded in passing federal legislation preserving item-level pricing, barcode adoption might have stalled completely. The battle with consumer groups was that consequential.

No federal legislation about item-level pricing was ever passed; however, for about half a decade it seemed like consumer concerns might halt barcode adoption regardless. Just two years after the first UPC barcode was scanned, Business Week ran an article titled “The Supermarket Scanner that Failed” that declared barcodes were already a failure. In 1978, some grocery stores abandoned plans to install barcode systems and, as a 1978 article in the Lansing State Journal noted, “the feeling of industry observers is that supermarket executives have lost their enthusiasm for the system.” Barcode adoption was so anemic that by the end of the 1970s only 1 percent of U.S. grocery stores had installed barcode scanners, which was well below what the industry had predicted.

Barcodes survived the struggles of the 1970s. Consumer backlash mostly disappeared by the turn of the decade, likely in part because Tucker-Foreman—who had become the national face of the protests—left her job as the head of the CFA to become the assistant secretary of agriculture at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the early 1980s, barcode adoption in the grocery industry began to increase exponentially, and by 1989 more than half of all U.S. grocery sales used barcodes. Additionally, the grocery industry’s eventual success spurred other industries, including the Department of Defense and the Automotive Industry Action Group, to mandate barcode adoption in the mid-1980s.

The rest is history. By the early 1990s, barcodes had become a key data infrastructure in everything from global supply chains to the postal service to concert tickets. Billions of barcodes are still scanned every single day, and they’ve become so taken for granted that the controversies of the 1970s have mostly been lost to history.

Today, these early struggles of the barcode are more than a quirky historical footnote; they are also an important reminder that technological adoption is rarely linear. People often expect new technologies to make an immediate impact, and when they don’t, they’re sometimes prematurely labeled as failures. Take virtual reality as a particularly drawn-out example. In the 1990s, tech columnists were predicting that VR was about to go mainstream. The famous futurist Nicholas Negroponte predicted in 1993 that “within the next five years more than one in ten people will wear head-mounted computer displays while traveling in buses, trains, and planes.” VR then failed rather spectacularly and has only become somewhat mainstream in the past few years.

We don’t even have to leave the world of barcodes to find another example: QR Codes, which are barcodes. They’re a subset of the technology called 2D barcodes. They were invented in the mid-1990s, but they reached the peak of their hype in the late 2000s when they began popping up everywhere, often for seemingly no reason. They then failed so spectacularly—in the West at least; they quickly became popular in East Asia—that by the mid-2010s articles were confidently declaring that “QR Codes are dead.” QR Codes then seemed to rise from the dead during the early days of the COVID pandemic and finally achieve the success predicted more than a decade earlier.

Technologies often come close to failing before they eventually succeed. By the mid-1970s, newspapers were already writing their eulogies for the barcode. But two decades later, the Smithsonian acquired a facsimile of the pack of Wrigley’s gum that was the first official product ever scanned with a UPC barcode. The journey a random pack of gum took from a grocery store in Troy, Ohio, in 1974 to the Smithsonian collection was far more precarious—and significantly more controversial—than most people realize.