Raising the bar

Last week many news outlets carried a story about the 40th anniversary of the creation of the bar code. I found this puzzling because I recalled that a couple of years ago there was a story about the 60th anniversary of the bar code. And unless the bar code had defied the laws of aging, something was out of whack. So I embarked on an investigation.

Exhibit 1: “Forty years ago today, the Universal Product Code (UPC) was first put to use in a U.S. grocery store.” (CBC News, June 25, 2014)

Exhibit 2: “Sunday, 7 October is the 60th anniversary of the barcode patent, filed in the US in 1952. However the distinctive black-and-white stripes did not make their first appearance in an American shop until 1974 – because the laser technology used to read them did not exist.” (BBC News, October 6, 2012)

To save you some time doing your own analysis, here are the key takeaways from my analysis of these news reports and other research related to the bar code.

1. The UPC is a bar code but not all bar codes are UPCs, which makes the UPC a subset of the bar code universe. This begs the question of whether a subset of a thing can have a different anniversary than the thing itself. I am leaning towards not, otherwise Google would have a terrible time keeping up with doodles for things like the anniversary of rocky road ice cream (provenance unknown, but apparently National Rocky Road day is officially celebrated on June 2 in the U.S. You’re welcome.)

2. A barcode and a bar code are the same thing. A Uniform Product Code is the same as a Universal Product Code. I don’t know about you, but what this tells me is the barcode (bar code) and UPC are decidedly not uniform or universal or even consistent.

3. In this case the egg did come before the chicken. I know that inventors are a breed unto themselves, but in which universe does it make sense to invent something that can’t actually be used until some unspecified point in the future when another (as yet un-invented) device becomes available? Oh right, in the UPC universe I guess.

4. I don’t know why I was surprised, but there is an entire genre of bar code tattoos. The less said about that the better.

5. The world’s smallest bar code was created to attach to bees in order to track their activity. According to the inventor, “The bar codes were created using our photocomposition process that prints individual lines as small as 1/1000 of an inch wide. To apply the labels, each bee was put to sleep for two seconds with a short burst of carbon dioxide, giving the researchers enough time to quickly glue a tiny label on the bee’s back. A laser scanner mounted over the tunnel-shaped entrance to the hive then recorded their activities.” Not to rain on the parade of someone who managed this feat, but they probably should have noticed that bees actually already have stripes.


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