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

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

One of the earliest forms of the bar code will celebrate its 40th anniversary 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 bar code -- 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 bar code'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, bar codes have become so varied and complex that optical imagers can read QR codes or matrix bar codes 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.

Bar codes are so commonplace that we take them for granted. We load a boarding pass bar code in the Aztec format onto a smartphone display that's read at the gate. We buy coffee at Starbucks by pulling up a bar code 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 bar codes on their wrists that are compared to bar codes 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 bar codes, according to analysts.

Four decades into commercial bar code technology, one of the biggest changes has been the ability to display a bar code 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 bar-code scanner in our pocket?" Sprague Ackley, a technologist with Honeywell Scanning & Mobility said in an interview.

Ackley has specialized in bar code scanning technology since 1980 and has been responsible for multiple patents in the field. He's also something of a historian on industry bar code standardization efforts that have led to widespread bar code usage. Without the standards, various types of bar codes 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 bar code, there'd be little value at all.

IBM engineer George Laurer (who has a personal Web site), invented what became the UPC bar code 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 bar codes 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 bar code printed on a postcard sent to each customer then later read when the payment was made.

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