UPC

Universal Product Code

The UPC was invented by George Laurer, a prolific inventory with a long history at IBM. The first product ever to successfully pass through a UPC scanner was a pack of Wrigley's gum, in 1974. Like virtually every bar code type, the UPC is governed by GS1, an international standards body that maintains many identification schemas for use in trade.

UPCs became a required bar code for the grocery industry. Most supermarket UPCs consist of 12 digits, including a checksum. But UPCs grew in popularity and have been adopted by all sorts of retailers.

As bar codes became more prevalent, mythologies sprung up around them. The popular Bar Code Tattoo series is based on the dystopian premise of oppressive identification. But the most intriguing UPC conspiracy is known as the "666 controversy" - which associates UPCs with the Book of Revelation's "mark of the Beast".

A Word On Bar Codes

The demise of Shelfie, a tool that allowed customers to link their print books to ebooks, got me thinking about bundling. Obviously, one method of linking print to its digital metadata is through its identifier. For print books, the identifier is the ISBN, which (since the early 2000s) is 13 digits long and can be expressed as a bar code - the EAN. The bar codes allow users to scan a book, check some of its metadata (such as price) online, and make purchasing decisions - and are frequently used by resellers prowling thrift shops and library sales, looking to pick up a good deal (an application that is looked down upon in the industry).
The book business has sneered at bar codes for a long time. Cover designers didn't like the way they marred the cover art. The very idea of printing pricing information on a book cover was anathema to publishing's vision of itself as somehow above commerce (though that did become a consumer requirement, and is why hardcover book jackets print the price on the inside front flap - it's as if publishers were holding their noses while giving in to consumer demands).
But as bookstores such as Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Books-A-Million began cropping up, and books began to be sold in other venues such as supermarkets, drugstores, and airports, the industry could no longer afford to be snobbish. Horror of horrors, these vendors required bar codes to sell their products. And in 1985, BISG published guidelines for bar codes on book jackets.
At that time, the EAN had not yet been invented. Bar codes  as we know them were invented first (and patented in 1952) for the grocery business. They began to be implemented in the 1970s, when the UPC was developed. The effectiveness of the bar code gave rise to efficiencies that other industries had been looking for, so soon the code gained traction in other types of stores as well.
UPC bar codes began to appear on books at first in sticker form. And that was the job of the receiving clerks at large bookstores. A shipment of books would come in, and clerks would print the stickers and apply them to book covers - that way, publishers didn't have to get involved. But as the large book chains gained more power, they began to campaign for publishers to take on this responsibility themselves. So publishers gave in and began printing covers with the bar codes already on them. (We hadn't seen the last of stickering, however.)
And now we come to Bookland.
Bookland originated in the 1980s, but was re-invigorated in the US in the 1990s by George Wright III, founder of Product Identification & Processing Systems, and an active member of BISG. The EAN bar code, which was gaining popularity, reserved a prefix to designate a country code. Wright convinced EAN to implement "Bookland" to indicate book products regardless of which country they are from. 978 and 979 are therefore reserved for book products.
EAN began as the European Article Number - a European version of the UPC that came in 8- or 13-digit schemas. UPC codes for books had 12 digits. EAN realized that they could incorporate the ISBN of a book into the EAN by using the Bookland prefix - and books could be easily scanned worldwide. But this would require publishers to change their ISBNs from the historical 10 digits to 13-digit identifiers. In the late 1990s/early 2000s, the ISBN standard was modified to reflect its new compatibility with the EAN. BISG began a large educational effort to persuade publishers to convert their ISBNs to 13 digits (my first consulting engagement) - a not-trivial task, as so many publishing systems had fixed-width ISBN fields.
A small aside: Never design your systems so that the field that contains identifiers is fixed-width. They will break every time.
During this transitional period, there were two types of bar codes in use simultaneously. Grocers and other retailers had not made the change to EAN - they were still using UPC. Bookstores had adopted the change to EAN. So publishers and booksellers were forced to grapple with this. BISG established rules for the transition - and while publishers were in the process of converting from UPCs, bookstores once again found that they had to sticker their products. It was a painful period, but the efficiencies in global selling more than made up for it.
There's a common misconception that the reason the industry converted from 10- to 13-digit bar codes is that we were "running out of numbers." I don't know how that rumor got started, but it even the BISG website touted it during the transitional period. We converted to conform with a standard that was being adopted globally - ISBN had agreed to make the change, and American publishers had to fall in line if they wanted to keep using the standard. Given that the book industry depended on ISBN more than any other identifier - it was baked into the supply chain at that point - the business had to confirm or reinvent the wheel, which was a more painful prospect.
That's how we got to where we are. Scanning technology has advanced to be able to handle both UPCs and EANs, so we don't see as much stickering. But if you compare bar codes on books from the 1990s to those on books today, you're actually looking at two different technologies.
So any business that has predicated its model on scanning the bar codes on books new and old needs to be aware of this. Scanning a book from the 1990s isn't going to tell you much about the book. And, in fact, publishers (and other manufacturers) re-used UPCs all the time. UPCs can in no way be seen as a reliable identifier the way EANs can.
Jeff Bezos understood this as he began planning to build Amazon. According to "The Late Age Of Print," a marvelous book that I highly recommend:
"Bezos’s decision to start an online bookstore was largely driven by a pragmatic appraisal of the book industry’s level of standardization. Books, he reasoned, were more “meticulously organized” than almost any other type of consumer good owing to the book industry’s decision to adopt the ISBN twenty-five years earlier. That the book industry already had taken the unusual step of assiduously inventorying, coding, and maintaining a detailed database of its wares convinced Bezos that books would be relatively easy to integrate with his company’s burgeoning distribution and inventory-control systems. Standardized product coding also meant that Amazon.com could more readily establish dependable communications with book publishers and wholesalers, which would be critical to meeting the company’s promises of speedy delivery, not to mention its ability to compete with local bookstores."
The ISBN has been a groundbreaking identifier in many ways, and encoding it into a bar code is one of the smartest things this industry has ever done. Other industries have looked to the ISBN as an example - which is how we've gotten the ISSN, the DOI, the ISRC, and other identifiers in the ISO TC 46/SC 9 family.
NB: I have further notes from George Wright III, which I am compiling and formatting into further posts/newsletters/podcasts. There is definitely more to come.