The UPC barcode arrived 40 years ago; now, they're ubiquitous

One inventor recalls attaching an early barcode to the backs of bees to track their behavior

One of the earliest forms of the barcode will celebrate its 40th anniversary next Thursday, June 26. On that date in 1974, a 10-pack of Juicy Fruit Gum was scanned for its Universal Product Code (UPC) at a food store in Troy, Ohio.

Four decades later, the barcode -- now available in dozens of modern formats -- is printed or embedded on trillions of products and other things worldwide: toothpaste tubes, machine parts on fighter planes -- even hospital patient wristbands.

The barcode's legacy is growing faster than ever. In the past five years, it's been given a boost by the emergence of widely-carried smartphones equipped with digital cameras that double as optical imagers, an update to the old laser scanners still used in many scanner guns. More recently, faster processors have arrived that can read thousands of alphanumeric characters on a single imprint, which can be smaller than a postage stamp or even a micro SD card.

In the past eight years, barcodes have become so varied and complex that optical imagers can read QR codes or matrix barcodes to learn specific information including the serial number of a precise product. With the advent of serialization, it's possible to track down a particular machine part's identification to learn through a connected database a rich amount of information such as when, where and how it was created or who inspected it -- all of which can prove essential in accident investigations or recalls.

Barcodes are so commonplace that we take them for granted. We load a boarding pass barcode in the Aztec format onto a smartphone display that's read at the gate. We buy coffee at Starbucks by pulling up a barcode on a smartphone display that's read by an optical scanner at the checkout. Nurses check in patients and re-check them several times for surgical procedures by scanning barcodes on their wrists that are compared to barcodes on their charts. Pharmacists track medicines, while warehouse workers and delivery drivers use rugged handheld scanners or scanners worn on rings or wrists to track goods and packages at lightning speed. A utility worker scans a meter connected to a customer's history, while a mechanic can research a car part's history.

The list seems endless...

While Near Field Communications (NFC) and its broader category of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) have emerged in the last decade to process transactions and to track goods, their impact is almost miniscule when compared to barcodes, according to analysts.

Four decades into commercial barcode technology, one of the biggest changes has been the ability to display a barcode and scan one using smartphones that evolved primarily post-2006.

"It's amazing that after so many years, who would have thought that such a mature technology would become something where we'd all have a barcode scanner in our pocket?" Sprague Ackley, a technologist with Honeywell Scanning & Technology said in an interview.

Ackley has specialized in barcode scanning technology since 1980 and has been responsible for multiple patents in the field. He's also something of a historian on industry barcode standardization efforts that have led to widespread barcode usage. Without the standards, various types of barcodes wouldn't interoperate with the many thousands of scanner and imager models. Of course, without the complex databases that contain the information connected to each barcode, there'd be little value at all.

IBM engineer George Laurer (who has a personal Web site, invented what became the UPC barcode first used on that 10-pack of gum in 1974. Still, it has taken various standards groups involving members from multiple companies and governments to get the movement started and then to later review a steady stream of alterations and innovations.

The roots of barcodes go back decades before the UPC came on the scene. One U.S. patent, No. 1,985,035, was granted on Dec. 18, 1934 for a card sorter device to read a simple code consisting of four bars printed on paper. The printed bars were read by an early type of camera called a "photo-cell circuit" in the design by Westinghouse inventors John Kermode, Douglas Young and Harry Sparkes. Their goal was to automate the payment of utility bills, with the primitive four bar barcode printed on a postcard sent to each customer then later read when the payment was made.

Their patent became one of the referenced "prior art patents" in a 1950s-era barcode patent obtained by inventors Norman Woodland and Bernard Silver. They updated previous barcodes by creating a circular barcode pattern that could be read in any orientation.

By now, there are thousands, of patents related in some way to barcode technology and the reading of barcodes with scanners and imagers. "People keep coming up with amazing ideas," Ackley said.

Ackley was granted seven different U.S. patents related to barcode scanning in the 1990s that he said were inspired by unusual experiment to track the behaviors of endangered bees. Ackley came up with the idea to attach small, almost crude barcodes to the backs of bees in the experiment sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Every time a particular bee would enter the hive, a nearby barcode scanner was used to register the bee's return and enter the information into a database. The bee-back barcodes replaced numbers on their backs that were being read by graduate students who had to stand by for long periods while taking notes. The mere presence of the grad students could have altered the bees' behavior, so the scanning technique was considered less intrusive, Ackley said.

Small barcodes were attached to the backs of bees in an experiment sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Even so, Ackley found he had to fiddle with the optics of scanning to read barcodes that were out of focus since the bees obviously wouldn't stand still. Out of his discoveries he developed technology used to decode out-of-focus images. The first in the series of seven related patents was granted in 1995 for patent No. 5,389,770 described as a "method and apparatus for decoding unresolved barcode profiles."

"The technique in the patents is equally applicable to laser scanning and image scanning; however, the image scanning benefitted the most," Ackley said.

Part of the immense value of barcodes is how accurately they are read, which is a result not only of good scanning equipment, but also of quality printing of barcodes on objects or embedding them into metal and other materials. On a recent tour to a FedEx sorting facility in Memphis, Ackley said 1.6 million barcodes were read there in a single night.

"I asked them how many errors there were in scanning that many barcodes, and basically the answer was zero," Ackley said.

Ackley compares his personal invention process to navigating a river by kayak in a short film produced by Honeywell to mark the 40th anniversary of the barcode.

"What intrigues me is not knowing what's around the next bend," Ackley says in the film. "There is incredible joy to figuring out each step of the way, each move and working your way up."

(Honeywell has also posted other videos and information on the barcode's 40th anniversary online. )

Recognizing he is part of a decades-old technology effort accomplished by many thousands of inventors, engineers and business people, Ackley remembers his first encounter with barcodes in 1980, when few people really understood the technology or what it could do.

"For a tech guy, it's been really fun," he said. "I'm still having a ball."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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