Inside Deep Throat Still

Universal Studios Home Entertainment

On June 26, 1974, the first product with a UPC barcode was scanned at a Marsh Supermarkets store in Troy, Ohio. The randomly selected item from a cart filled with varied scannable goods was a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum, and that’s of enough historical significance that the pack is now in the Smithsonian.

But that’s not the only part of the story of the retail game changer that’s interesting. The path to the barcode revolution was long, and it involved scientists and grocery executives and some inspiration from the movies. And yet so few films have been inspired by the UPC technology for anything more than barcode tattoos on heads, necks and arms in sci-fi dystopias.

Typically those markings are for keeping track of people, but in a classic bit from Mike Leigh’s Naked, David Thewlis’s character goes on about how in the future we’ll have barcodes on our hand or forehead instead of paper and plastic currency, to pay for items that also have “the ubiquitous barcode that you’ll find on every bog roll and packet of johnnies and every poxy pork pie.”

Read ahead to learn about how the advent of the sound cinema and the rise of the porn film — with the notorious Deep Throat — figured into the development of the Universal Product Code as well as its legacy in the form of an Errol Morris short, a Jude Law feature, a Star Trek reboot and one of the most clever interactive online movie projects in recent years.

It all started in 1919 with Lee De Forest‘s work with a sound-on-film process he eventually coined Phonofilm (watch one of their 1923 productions below). He may not have been the first or only man to come up with the idea of having film prints include lines on the side of the frame that translated as sound waves when put through the projector light, but he is the most famous and was an inspiration to later inventors in the development of scanners like those now found in supermarkets and other retail stores.

He also had help, from guys like Theodore Case and Edward Sponable at the Case Research Labs and Eric Tigerstedt and others who were integral in further perfecting De Forest’s system — and none of whom earned proper credit, as is expected in the field of inventing. Sadly, Hollywood wasn’t interested in Phonofilm, only advancing away from silent film when Warner Bros. came out with their sound-on-disc Vitaphone system. Phonofilm went bankrupt and when the optical sound-on-film process replaced sound-on-disc as the standard, RCA and Movietone took its place as industry leaders.

Jumping ahead to 1948, two graduate students at Drexel University teamed up to meet a challenge proposed by a grocery chain executive. The businessman wanted a way to track products being sold in his stores. That wasn’t a totally fresh idea, as 16 years earlier a Harvard class led by Wallace Flint came up with a punchcard system for the purpose of keeping track of merchandise inventories. But at Drexel, Norman J. Woodman, who was also a teacher at the school, was so set on coming up with an automatic system that he not only devoted the next few years on working with concepts involving Morse Code, UV-visible ink and other techniques, he also quit his teaching job to pursue its perfection.

In 1952, he and the other Drexel student, Bernie Silvers, patented their invention, which took De Forest’s sound-on-film idea and adapted it as the first barcode (though they technically relied on an RCA movie sound system photo-multiplier tube). Instead of light translating lines to sound, theirs translated lines to numbers. And instead of straight, parallel lines, they went with concentric circles, which became known as the “bullseye code.” At the time, few saw its commercial potential, including De Forest’s new employer, IBM.

Forty years later, though, Woodland would receive the National Medal of Technology and Innovation for his work with barcodes (Silvers was long dead from an auto accident). Ironically, it was given by President George H.W. Bush, who just months earlier had shown amazement upon apparently seeing a supermarket scanner for the first time, nearly 20 years after its debut.

With little interest in their barcode idea, partly because their system required impractically large and strong lightbulbs, Woodman and Silvers sold the patent to Philco, who sold it to RCA, who did actually work on the idea of using it for supermarket scanning in the late 1960s (now the process used newly available lasers that hadn’t existed in 1952) and began a lengthy test at a Kroger in 1972, but their idea failed in part because it involved barcode labels that were specific to the chain, and thereby not a universal system (the food companies were not into that idea at all), and because the bullseye codes tended to have flaws in their printing.

Meanwhile, some of the nation’s grocery and food manufacturing companies, members of the National Association of Food Chains, had gotten together and formed the U.S. Supermarket Ad Hoc Committee on a Uniform Grocery Product Code. They were led by First National Stores (Finast) president Alan Haberman. The story goes that the 12-person group was filled with type-A personalities (mostly executives from brands like Heinz and General Mills) who couldn’t agree on a standard symbol, so eventually Haberman eased the tension between them by taking them all out to a very fancy restaurant and then bringing them to see Deep Throat. Yes, that Deep Throat.

Among the different designs for the UPC symbol were RCA’s bullseye, a semi-circle type from Litton that they collaborated on with A&P and a vertical-line concept by Pitney Bowes that closely resembles the winner. The champion, of course, was IBM. Woodland was still working there are the time and ended up playing part in the continuation of his invention. But the man credited with the UPC symbology we still use today is George Laurer.

The reason IBM’s concept was chosen wasn’t just because of that symbology. The company proposed a whole system using silicon discs. Basically, every cash register would be a computer. Hear that story, as told by one of the committee members, retired Procter & Gamble manager Barry Franz, in Errol Morris’s short film They Were There, commissioned for IBM’s centennial, below (it’s about a third of the way in, if you want to skip ahead).

That was 1973. The next year was the famous gum sale followed by the introduction of UPC scanners in Pathmark stores and chains in Canada. By 1980, they were all over. Yet by 1990 the best use of a supermarket scanner was in the opening credits of The Simpsons, which had baby Maggie ringing up at the price of $847.63. That year also saw the release of My Blue Heaven with its supermarket price fraud gag indicating that the suburb Steve Martin is sent to doesn’t use barcode scanning for all items.

Over the next couple decades, as I mentioned at the top, barcodes could be prominently found in movies like 12 Monkeys, Alien 3, The Island and Hitman, all as tattooed markers on people. In one movie, 2010′s Repo Men, the barcodes were on internal parts of the body, for an industry treating organs like any other UPC-coded product. Earlier, 2003′s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines featured a portable scanner in the scene where Claire Danes and her fiancee are picking stuff for their wedding registry, and humorously she has a problem with the device and says, “I hate machines.”

Other films with notable barcode scanner references include the documentary Food, Inc., which tells us we vote for what kind of food we want made, organic or local or neither, with every item of ours scanned at the store, and the 2009 Star Trek reboot, and its sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, both of which used various retail scanners as props in the bridge of the USS Enterprise.

Star Trek Into Darkness scanners

Paramount/Barcodes Inc.

The most interesting and clever way that UPC codes have come back to significance with movies, however, is a 2011 project called Barcode (aka Barcode.tv). Co-produced by the National Film Board of Canada and ARTE France, the interactive documentary consists of 100 shorts by 30 directors (Canadian and French), each film about a different consumer goods — yet not in an informational or advertisement way. The fun is that you can, via your webcam or iPhone, scan a barcode off something in your home. And then you should get the short related to that item.

Unfortunately, their system seems to be pretty specific. None of the items I tried came up, even when I tried a box of bandages and canned goods, the kind of product of which there are films about. The good news is that even when your object comes up as “unknown,” you still get an appropriate short film, one of which is a fun interpretations of the term “File Not Found.” I haven’t gone through all of them, but I plan to — you can choose them directly if you don’t like the search or random options.

Please remind me of any good movie scenes involving barcodes, supermarket scanners, UPC symbols or anything else relevant in the comments.


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