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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.

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.


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