Harry Burke

Harry Burke died on November 14, 2000 in the VA Hospital in Palo Alto, CA. He was 82. According to his family, the cause of death was complications from Lyme disease, which he had contracted more than ten years ago.

Burke was a Stanford University graduate and a World War II veteran of the submarine service. He became active in the AIDC industry in 1976, when the California company he was working for – Data Pathing Systems (DPS) – was purchased by NCR. DPS was a developer and manufacturer of factory data collection terminals and Burke was then a product manager. Soon after the acquisition, DPS incorporated bar code scanning wands into its devices and Burke received his indoctrination into the newly emerging technology.

During the next 20 years, he remained totally engrossed in bar coding and became one of its most vocal and ardent supporters. After Burke left DPS in 1986, he devoted most of his time to writing and consulting. A native Californian, he was also a prolific poet and a naturalist who loved to explore the national parks and mountains. He authored four books (Automating Management Information, Volumes I & II; Handbook of Bar Coding Systems; Barcodes Galore), and wrote dozens of articles and monographs. These writings concentrated mostly on the factory floor applications of bar coding. Although his books were widely recognized by experts for their excellent coverage of the subject, they did not sell very well.

Dick Meyers (Delta Services), who worked with Burke at NCR and remained a friend, remarked this past week: “Harry was brilliant, but his writing style was somewhat scholarly and did not lend itself to easy reading.”

I first wrote about Burke in SCAN Newsletter in December 1980. In rereading the 23 SCAN articles that were subsequently published about him through 1994, I found that my reporting demonstrated an unabashed admiration for his unusual intelligence, acerbic wit, and total integrity. He did not abide fools nor tolerate dishonesty. Some considered him to be difficult, irascible and contentious, but he was one of the seminal thinkers of the AIDC industry. He was an honored, charter member of the AIDC 100 organization.

Burke could leave a memorable first impression. George Wright (PIPS, Inc.), who developed the add-on bar code to the UPC symbol to identify magazines and books, still remembers his only meeting with Burke — at an early SCAN-TECH. “He seemed to be aware of the role I played with the add-on codes,” Wright recently recalled. “His comments were incisive and biting and not particularly complimentary.” What Wright may not have been aware of, at the time, was that Burke hated the proliferation of different bar code formats. He was a firm believer in the capabilities of just two or three symbologies to handle all applications.

In April 1991, Burke wrote an open letter to the Postmaster General of the U.S. Postal Service about that agency’s “multibillion dollar program…to automate mail-handling by instrumenting the reading of ZIP+4 codes.” In typical Burkestyle he noted: “Unfortunately, the postal program…is compromised before it is off the ground….Postnet (a clocked bar code) is  demonstrably well behind state-of-the-art; it is numeric only (not able to handle international ZIPs); it is difficult to print; it cannot be read by the inexpensive instruments now used throughout industry; its read-reliability is substandard; and it does not lend itself well for use in automating the sortation of either packages or bulk mail….By choosing its own symbology, the Postal Service is driving a knife into the very heart of one of the most important challenges U.S. industry has ever faced.”

Burke’s contempt for the “establishment” was legendary. By his own admission, he disliked confrontation at meetings and preferred memos in which he could blast away at will. In September 1985, he wrote a 24-page memo to Roger Palmer (Intermec) attacking the bar code standards that were being established by the Technical Symbology Committee of AIM/US. “AIM is not a proper standardization forum,” Burke warned. “AIM members are responsible for maximizing the sale of their employers’ products [resulting in]…a direct conflict of interest.” Then, focusing his comments directly on Palmer, Burke admonished: “I do not see how you can perform your position as chairman of the Symbology Committee. You have a legal obligation to the stockholders of Intermec. To perform this duty, your decisions must promote the sale of Intermec’s products to the best you are able. As chairman of a key Symbology Committee, you have an obligation to those who are trying to use bar codes. I hold these two tasks to be in direct conflict.” 

No one was exempt from Burke’s criticisms. In August 1988, in response to an article I wrote about major changes anticipated for bar code scanning in the future, Burke replied: “You merely recount symptoms rather than outline what is really going on. In actuality, bar coding is breaking out of its labeling shell to become ‘barcodese’…an instrument-to-instrument communication technique….[that will extend into] every nook and cranny of corporate affairs.”

During the past few weeks, in reviewing my 20-year association and friendship with Harry Burke, I have tried to assess his impact on the AIDC industry. He never invented any scanning device, or developed a successful bar code, or wrote important standards, or even participated in an industry committee. But we all knew that he was watching from the sidelines, ready to spot any inconsistencies, or to slice through the “baloney.” (In 1985, Harry actually wrote an essay titled “Bar Code Baloney”; it was about a curious syndrome that came over him every time he attended a seminar on bar coding and found himself uttering the word “baloney” over and over as the speakers attempted to educate their unsuspecting and naïve audiences.) Every industry – actually every company – should have its own Harry Burke monitoring events with a knowledgeable, irreverent, fearless eye toward preserving the integrity of its activities. The AIDC industry was fortunate to have had the original. We will miss him.

Harry Burke, who was divorced many years ago, is survived by his three children, Kevin, 53, of El Granada, CA, Trina 48, and Jeffrey, 45, of Belmont, CA; and four grandchildren.

by George Goldberg, SCAN: The DATA CAPTURE Report