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

Matt Hamblen | June 24, 2014
One inventor recalls attaching an early bar code 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.


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