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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.

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."


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