It was met with more criticism than even Michael Moore could have mustered.
Union representatives said it would steal American jobs. Conspiracy theorists believed it was intrusively "Big Brother." Some Christians thought it hid the number 666, representing the Antichrist. TV talk-show host Phil Donahue called it a corporate plot against consumers.
It survived all of that to mark its 30th year this month.
Happy birthday to the Universal Product Code.
The UPC, the most common version of the so-called bar code, wasn't as warmly embraced nor as breathtaking as some emerging technologies, but its impact on retailing has been enormous. It saves $17 billion a year in inventory costs by one estimate, not to mention carpal tunnel syndrome for countless cashiers.
Other technologies, such as radio-frequency identification tags, might one day replace it, but the lowly UPC improved efficiency and supply-chain control almost invisibly.
One of the few times it gained media notice at all was in 1992 when President George H.W. Bush marveled at it during a campaign visit to a grocers convention in Florida. His reaction cemented a perception that he was out of touch with the public - many people were by then well acquainted with the technology.
The rectangle of stripes and numbers has even fused its way into pop culture: In the former Fox television series Dark Angel, Jessica Alba starred as a genetically altered fighting machine with a bar code branded on the back of her neck.
Human bar-coding is thus far the stuff of science fiction, but the United States government uses the symbol in Homeland Security efforts and airlines keep track of luggage with it. Several months ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration required a version of the bar code to be put on medications to cut errors.
"I'm really proud of the fact what was originally designed to help move people through the checkout counter now actually helps to save lives," said Michael Di Yeso, a former Lutherville resident and president of the Uniform Code Council, which regulates the UPC and has offices in New Jersey and Ohio.
The code came about after a group of grocers got together in Ohio in the late 1960s to look for a faster way to serve customers, track inventory and make better use of employees who were stamping prices on individual products.
After consulting with several Dayton-based technology companies, the group, which would later become the Uniform Code Council, settled on the bar code and set about creating standards for its use.
The bar code dates back to 1949. Two young college instructors, Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver, sought to develop a visible version of the Morse Code to automate the checkout line. Their symbol included lines of various widths that could be read by a primitive light scanner, but their concept was deemed impractical for business use.
Woodland and Silver patented their set-up in 1952 but tried without success to win the interest of International Business Machine Corp., for which Woodland worked, the Uniform Code Council said. By the late 1950s, the pair gave up and sold the patent.
As the technology improved, businesses picked it up individually. But the system sputtered for nearly 20 more years before grocers offered standards that could be applied industrywide. Woodland, still an IBM employee, helped put the finishing touches on the UPC bar code for the Uniform Code Council.
Silver never got to see the success; he died in 1962 at age 38. And Woodland never got rich from it, although the first President Bush did award him the National Medal of Technology in 1992, at the same time as an emerging software developer named Bill Gates.
The process of the UPC hasn't varied much in 30 years. Products are assigned a bar code that's regulated by the council and recognized by laser light scanners. The singular code corresponds to data entered in a computer, such as the name of the manufacturer, price, inventory information, dosage details and expiration dates.
In 1977, an international version of the code was created. It's now used in 23 industries - from publishing to health care - in 141 nations.
"It's kind of like the old show-business adage," said Jeff Oddo, a spokesman for the Uniform Code Council, which developed uses and standards for the code. "You spend 20 years to become an overnight sensation."
Many people were wary of it, said Sharon Buchanan, who 30 years ago was a 31-year-old grocery checker at a Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio.
Today, she's a legend in the town of 21,000 people in the southwestern part of the state about 25 miles north of Dayton: She was the first cashier to scan the UPC on June 26, 1974, on a pack of Wrigley's chewing gum.
"This has been exciting for me," Buchanan said in a telephone interview last week from an Ohio celebration for the UPC anniversary. Troy's mayor had declared it "UPC Bar Code Day."
"We're just a little town and for something to happen here has been great for us," she said.