Universal Product Code

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The Universal Product Code (UPC) is a barcode symbology (i.e., a specific type of barcode) that is widely used in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and in other countries for tracking trade items in stores. Its most common form, the UPC-A, consists of 12 numerical digits, which are uniquely assigned to each trade item. Along with the related EAN barcode, the UPC is the barcode mainly used for scanning of trade items at the point of sale, per GS1 specifications.[1] UPC data structures are a component of GTINs (Global Trade Item Numbers). All of these data structures follow the global GS1 specification which bases on international standards. Some retailers (clothing, furniture) do not use the GS1 System (other bar code symbologies, other article number systems). Other retailers use the EAN/UPC bar code symbology but without using a GTIN (for products brands sold at such retailers only).


Each UPC-A barcode consists of a scannable strip of black bars and white spaces, above a sequence of 12 numerical digits. No letters, characters, or other content of any kind may appear on a standard UPC-A barcode. The digits and bars maintain a one-to-one correspondence - in other words, there is only one way to represent each 12-digit number visually, and there is only one way to represent each visual barcode numerically.

The scannable area of every UPC-A barcode follows the pattern SLLLLLLMRRRRRRE, where the S (start), M (middle), and E (end) guard bars are represented exactly the same on every UPC and the L (left) and R (right) sections collectively represent the 12 numerical digits that make each UPC unique. The first digit L indicates a particular number system to be used by the following digits. The last digit R is an error detecting check digit that allows some errors in scanning or manual entry to be detected. The non-numerical identifiers, the guard bars, separate the two groups of six digits and establish the timing.

Standard UPC-A   Standard UPC-E*
UPC-A Q.svgUPC-A S.svgUPC-A L1E.svgUPC-A L2.svgUPC-A L3.svgUPC-A L4.svgUPC-A L5.svgUPC-A L6.svgUPC-A M.svgUPC-A R7.svgUPC-A R8.svgUPC-A R9.svgUPC-A R9.svgUPC-A R9.svgUPC-A R9E.svgUPC-A E.svgUPC-A Q.svg

1  23456 78999  9

UPC-E S.svgUPC-E 2ew.svgUPC-E 3ow.svgUPC-E 4ow.svgUPC-E 5ew.svgUPC-E 6ow.svgUPC-E 9ew.svgUPC-E E.svg


  • Note: UPC-A 123456789999 corresponds with UPC-E 234569 (with the EOOEOE parity pattern). Equivalent UPC-A and UPC-E barcodes share the same check digit, which is 9 in this case.


UPC-A barcodes can be printed at various densities to accommodate a variety of printing and scanning processes. The significant dimensional parameter is called x-dimension, the ideal width of single module element. A single x-dimension must be used uniformly within a given UPC-A barcode. The width of each bar and space is determined by multiplying the x-dimension by the module width of each bar or space (1, 2, 3, or 4 units). Visually, a grouping of two or more adjacent bars appear as a single wide bar, while a grouping of two or more adjacent spaces appear as a single wide space. Since the guard bars each include two bars, and each of the 12 digits of the UPC-A barcode consists of two (wide) bars and two (wide) spaces, all UPC-A barcodes consist of exactly (3 × 2) + (12 × 2) = 30 (wide) bars, of which 24 represent numerical digits and 6 represent guard bars.

The x-dimension for the UPC-A at the nominal size is 0.33 mm (0.013 in.). Nominal symbol height for UPC-A is 25.9 mm (1.02 in.). In UPC-A the dark bars forming the Start, Middle, and End guard bars are extended downwards by 5 times x-dimension, with a resulting nominal symbol of height of 27.55 mm (1.08 in.) This also applies to the bars of the first and the last symbol characters of UPC-A symbol. UPC-A can be reduced or magnified anywhere from 80% to 200%.

A quiet zone, with a width of at least 9 times the x-dimension, must be present on each side of the scannable area of the UPC-A barcode.[2] UPC-E requires 9 X-dimension units on the left side and 7 on the right.[3] For a GTIN-12 number encoded in a UPC-A barcode symbol, the first and last digits are always placed outside the symbol to indicate the quiet zones that are necessary for barcode scanners to work properly.


The UPC-A barcode is an optical pattern of bars and spaces that format and encode the UPC digit string. Each digit is represented by a unique pattern of two bars and two spaces. The bars and spaces are variable width; they may be 1, 2, 3, or 4 units (modules) wide. The total width for a digit is always 7 modules. To represent the 12 digits of the UPC-A code requires a total of 7×12 = 84 modules.

A complete UPC-A includes 95 modules: the 84 modules for the digits (L and R) combined with 11 modules for the start, middle, and end (S, M, and E) patterns. The S and E patterns are 3 modules wide and use the pattern bar-space-bar; each bar and space is one module wide. The M pattern is 5 modules wide and uses the pattern space-bar-space-bar-space; each bar and space is one module wide. In addition, a UPC symbol requires a quiet zone (additional space modules) before the S pattern and another quiet zone after the E pattern.

StartLeft Numerical DigitsMiddleRight Numerical DigitsEndQuiet
UPC-A Q.svgUPC-A S.svgUPC-A L0.svgUPC-A L1.svgUPC-A L2.svgUPC-A L3.svgUPC-A L4.svgUPC-A L5.svgUPC-A L6.svgUPC-A L7.svgUPC-A L8.svgUPC-A L9.svgUPC-A M.svgUPC-A R0.svgUPC-A R1.svgUPC-A R2.svgUPC-A R3.svgUPC-A R4.svgUPC-A R5.svgUPC-A R6.svgUPC-A R7.svgUPC-A R8.svgUPC-A R9.svgUPC-A E.svgUPC-A Q.svg

Each digit is 7 modules wide. The UPC's left-side digits (the digits to the left of the middle guard bars) have odd parity, which means the total width of the black bars is an odd number of modules. The right-hand side digits have even parity. Consequently, a UPC scanner can determine whether it is scanning a symbol from left-to-right or from right-to-left (the symbol is upside-down). After seeing a start or end pattern (they are the same bar-space-bar whichever way they are read), the scanner will first see odd parity digits if scanning left-to-right or even parity digits if scanning right-to-left. With the parity/direction information, an upside-down symbol will not confuse the scanner. When confronted with an upside-down symbol, the scanner may simply ignore it (many scanners alternate left-to-right and right-to-left scans, so they will read the symbol on a subsequent pass) or the scanner may recognize the digits and put them in the right order. There is further structure in the digit encoding. The right-hand digits are the optical complement of the left-hand digits. That means that black bars are turned into white spaces and vice versa. Numbers on the right side of the middle guard bars are optically the inverse of the numbers to the left. In other words, while a number on the left side of the UPC will be made up of black bars and white spaces, the same number on the right side would be made up of white bars and black spaces. For example, the left-hand "4" digit is space × 1, bar × 1, space × 3, bar × 2; the right-hand "4" digit is bar × 1, space × 1, bar × 3, space × 2.


UPC-A and UPC-E each provide a theoretical maximum of 1 trillion (10^12) unique barcodes, though in practice the number of barcodes is limited by the standards used to create them.

UPC-A: (10 possible values per digit ^ 6 left digits) × (10 possible values per digit ^ 6 right digits) = 1,000,000 × 1,000,000 = 1,000,000,000,000.
UPC-E: 10 possible values per digit × 2 possible parities per digit = 20 permutations per digit ^ 6 digits = 64,000,000.

Number System[edit]

The first digit indicates the number system to be used for the subsequent digits. The following number system digits and their numbering schemes are:

Check digits[edit]

In the UPC-A system, the check digit is calculated as follows:

  1. Add the digits in the odd-numbered positions (first, third, fifth, etc.) together and multiply by three.
  2. Add the digits in the even-numbered positions (second, fourth, sixth, etc.) to the result.
  3. Find the result modulo 10 (i.e. the remainder when divided by 10.. 10 goes into 58 5 times with 8 leftover).
  4. If the result is not zero, subtract the result from ten.

For example, in a UPC-A barcode "03600029145x" where x is the unknown check digit, x can be calculated by

The check digit is thus 2.

This should not be confused with the numeral "X" which stands for a value of 10 in modulo 11, commonly seen in the ISBN check digit.


UPC in its most common usage technically refers to UPC-A. Other variants of the UPC exist.


To allow the use of UPC barcodes on smaller packages where a full 12-digit barcode may not fit, a 'zero-suppressed' version of UPC was developed called UPC-E, in which the number system digit and all trailing zeros in the manufacturer code and all leading zeros in the product code are suppressed (omitted).[5] This symbology differs from UPC-A in that it only uses a 6-digit code, does not use middle guard bars, and the end bit pattern (E) becomes 010101. The way in which a 6-digit UPC-E relates to a 12-digit UPC-A is determined by the last (right-hand most) digit. It can only be used with UPC-A number system 0 or 1, the value of which, along with the check digit, determines the parity pattern of the encoding. With the manufacturer code represented by X's, and product code by N's then:

Last digitUPC-E pattern isUPC-A equivalent is
0XXNNN00 or 1 + XX000-00NNN + check
1XXNNN10 or 1 + XX100-00NNN + check
2XXNNN20 or 1 + XX200-00NNN + check
3XXXNN30 or 1 + XXX00-000NN + check
4XXXXN40 or 1 + XXXX0-0000N + check
5XXXXX50 or 1 + XXXXX-00005 + check
6XXXXX60 or 1 + XXXXX-00006 + check
7XXXXX70 or 1 + XXXXX-00007 + check
8XXXXX80 or 1 + XXXXX-00008 + check
9XXXXX90 or 1 + XXXXX-00009 + check

For example a UPC-E barcode with the number 654321 would expand to the UPC-A 065100004327 or 165100004327, depending on the parity pattern of the encoded digits, as described next.

UPC-E check digits are calculated using this expanded string in the same way as used by UPC-A. The resulting check digit is not added to the barcode, however, but is encoded by manipulating the parity of the six digits which are present in the UPC-E - as shown in the following tables:

Check digitParity pattern for UPC-A

number system 0

Parity pattern for UPC-A

number system 1

StartOdd Parity PatternEven Parity PatternEnd
UPC-E S.svgUPC-E 0ow.svg
UPC-E 1ow.svg
UPC-E 2ow.svg
UPC-E 3ow.svg
UPC-E 4ow.svg
UPC-E 5ow.svg
UPC-E 6ow.svg
UPC-E 7ow.svg
UPC-E 8ow.svg
UPC-E 9ow.svg
UPC-E 0ew.svg
UPC-E 1ew.svg
UPC-E 2ew.svg
UPC-E 3ew.svg
UPC-E 4ew.svg
UPC-E 5ew.svg
UPC-E 6ew.svg
UPC-E 7ew.svg
UPC-E 8ew.svg
UPC-E 9ew.svg
UPC-E E.svg

Our example code 654321, therefore, would become 1-1-1 4-1-1-1 1-2-3-1 2-3-1-1 1-4-1-1 2-2-1-2 2-2-2-1 1-1-1-1-1-1. The resulting barcode would look roughly like this:


Note: The UPC can detect 100% of single digit errors and 89% of transposition errors.


The EAN was developed as a superset of UPC, adding an extra digit to the beginning of every UPC number. This expanded the number of unique values theoretically possible by ten times, from 1 trillion to 10 trillion. EAN-13 barcodes also indicate the country in which the company that sells the product is based (which may or may not be the same as the country in which the good is manufactured). The leading digits of the code determine this, according to the GS1 country codes. The EAN-13 encoding rules encode the leading 13th digit by modifying the encoding of the left-hand half of the barcode: the original rules for UPC are treated as a '0' if read as EAN-13. A UPC barcode XXXXXXXXXXXX therefore is the EAN-13 barcode 0XXXXXXXXXXXX. It is possible to prefix a UPC barcode with a 0, they become EAN-13 rather than UPC-A. This does not change the check digit. All point-of-sale systems can now understand both equally.

EAN-8 is an 8-digit (including check digit) variation of the EAN number.

UPC usage notes:

Other variations[edit]

As the UPC becomes technologically obsolete, it is expected that UPC-B and UPC-C will disappear from common use by the 2010s. The UPC-D standard may be modified into EAN 2.0 or be phased out entirely.


Wallace Flint proposed an automated checkout system in 1932 using punched cards. Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland developed a bull's-eye style code and patented it (US patent 2612994, Norman J. Woodland and Bernard Silver, "Classifying Apparatus and Method", issued October 7, 1952 ). In the 1960s, railroads experimented with a multicolor barcode for tracking railcars, but they eventually abandoned it.[6]

A group of grocery industry trade associations formed the Uniform Grocery Product Code Council which with consultants Larry Russell and Tom Wilson of McKinsey & Company, defined the numerical format of the Uniform Product Code.[7] Technology firms including Charegon, IBM, Litton-Zellweger, Pitney Bowes-Alpex, Plessey-Anker, RCA, Scanner Inc., Singer, and Dymo Industries/Data General proposed alternative symbol representations to the council.[citation needed] In the end the Symbol Selection Committee chose to slightly modify, changing the font in the human readable area, the IBM proposal designed by George J. Laurer.[citation needed]

The first UPC marked item ever scanned at a retail checkout was at the Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio at 8:01 a.m. on June 26, 1974, and was a 10-pack (50 sticks) of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit chewing gum.[8] The shopper was Clyde Dawson and cashier Sharon Buchanan made the first UPC scan. The NCR cash register rang up 67 cents.[9] The entire shopping cart also had barcoded items in it, but the gum was merely the first one picked up. This item went on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.[10]

IBM proposal[edit]

Around 1970, IBM at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina assigned George Laurer to develop a supermarket scanner and label. In February 1971, Heard Baumeister joined Laurer then later William Crouse joined the effort. After several months they had made no progress. They were aware of the RCA bullseye label that could be scanned with a simple straight line laser scanner, but a readable label was far too large. Although Litton Industries proposed a bullseye symbol cut in half to reduce the area, it was still too large and presented the same ink smear printing problems as the RCA symbol. The redundancy and checking ability were removed completely.


The UPC Label above shows the general characteristics of Baumeister's proposals. He did not suggest any specific bar code so the image does not attempt to show exact coding of the ten digits required at that time. Also Baumeister's proposal did not include specific guard bars on the sides and center. It did include the split label that allowed the height to be reduced to nearly one half.

A change in management at IBM resulted in Baumeister, Crouse, and Laurer being assigned to different departments. Laurer was given sole responsibility for inventing and creating a viable code and symbol that would satisfy all the requirements.[11] He made several attempts based using the Delta C code invented by Crouse. Finally he devised a new code that also read distances from leading to leading and trailing to trailing edges of bars making it much less sensitive to the printer’s ink spreading degradation. Although this code was based upon the Delta C code, it required far less area. Unfortunately it still did not meet the 1.5 sq. in. requirement. Laurer’s final breakthrough was using the unique characteristics of his new code to invent a way to divide the symbol in halves in such a way that they could be reassembled in the correct order by the scanner. This reduced the necessary area by about 40% to 1.5 by 1.0 inches. The Delta C Code, also called Delta Distance Code was not "Character Independent"[clarification needed]. Dymo Industries, makers of handheld printing devices insisted that the code be character independent, so that handheld printing devices could produce the bar code in store if the items were not bar-coded by the manufacturers. Dymo's proposal was accepted by IBM and incorporated in IBM's latest proposal

The following table shows the workable labels, available in the early 1970s, with their sizes.

Check digit labelParity pattern dimensionsArea
Bullseye with Morse CodeLargeLarge
Bullseye with Delta B12.0" diameter113.10 sq. in.
Bullseye with Delta A9.0" diameter63.62 sq. in.
Baumeister 1st w/ Delta B6.0" × 5.8"34.80 sq. in.
Baumeister 2 halves w/ Delta B6.0" × 3.0"18.00 sq. in.
Baumeister 2 halves w/ Delta A4.5" × 2.3"10.35 sq. in.
Baumeister with Delta C1.5" × 0.9"1.35 sq. in.

This is assuming a bullseye with the same information and reliable readability.

Baumeister and Crouse were no longer involved in the creation of the code and symbol. Crouse designed a hand held device to read Laurer’s symbol, Baumeister did theoretical work on scanner designs. D. Savir, a mathematician was given the task of proving the symbol could be printed and would meet the reliability requirements. N. J. Woodland, the inventor of the bullseye code was responsible for writing the IBM proposal to the selection committee. A group under the direction of Art Hamburgen in Rochester, Minnesota designed and built a prototype scanner incorporating the architecture patented by Laurer. Dr. Sodastrum was the lead engineer on the scanner optics.

On December 1, 1972, IBM presented Laurer's proposal to the Super Market Committee in Rochester, Minnesota, the location where IBM would develop the scanner. During the presentation, Crouse gave a lab demonstration where he read UPC-like labels with a simple handheld wand. In addition to reading regular labels, he read the large two-page centerfold label in the proposal booklet. He then turned to a page showing a photo of labeled items sitting on a table. The labels were small and flawed due to the resolution of the printed photo but the wand read many of them. This demonstration showed the robustness of the pure Delta C code and the proposal was accepted. Later bar width measurements were added that violated the teachings of the Delta C patent.

Laurer continued his career with the UPC. He became known as the inventor of the UPC; without his persistence there might not have been an IBM proposal.[citation needed] Baumeister and Crouse moved on to other activities: Baumeister prior to the Rochester proposal and Crouse immediately after.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://www.gs1us.org/standards/barcodes/ean_upc
  2. ^ http://www.codeproject.com/KB/graphics/upc_a_barcode.aspx
  3. ^ UPC Symbol Specification Manual
  4. ^ "Barcodes for Pharmaceuticals and Surgical Products". 
  5. ^ "UPC-E Symbology". Retrieved 21 January 2013. 
  6. ^ "A Brief History of the Bar Code". Esquire 153 (3): 42. March 2010. 
  7. ^ http://www.mckinsey.com/careers/values_that_matter/our_innovative_history
  8. ^ Nelson, Benjamin (1997), From Punched Cards To Bar Codes. 
  9. ^ Alfred, Randy, "June 26, 1974: By Gum! There's a New Way to Buy Gum" Wired magazine 06.26.08
  10. ^ Harvard Magazine, September - October 2005
  11. ^ "Alumni Hall Of Fame Members". University of Maryland Alumni Association. The University of Maryland. 2005. Archived from the original on 2007-06-30. Retrieved 2009-06-10. "After graduating from Maryland in 1951, George Laurer joined IBM as a junior engineer and worked up the ranks to senior engineer. In 1969, he returned to the technical side of engineering and was later assigned the monumental task of designing a code and symbol for product identification for the Uniform Grocery Product Code Council. His solution—the Universal Product Code—radically changed the retail world. Since then, he has enhanced the code by adding a 13th digit." 

External links[edit]