An Appreciation of Eric Clamons

Computer History Vignettes

By Bob Bemer

I first encountered Eric Clamons in about 1957, when I took an interest in early efforts, to standardize coded character sets, being made by the Electronic Industries Association. Our lives then merged closely until his death in 1998.

He had more effect upon your lives than is generally known. Seemingly little things that he caused to be and happen, such as how IBM computers, stuck internally with EBCDIC, can nevertheless use their own ASCII PCs as I/O devices via a simple chip!

Among my old papers I found a recommendation that I had made to Macalester College, in St, Paul, MN, that he receive their Distinguished Citizen Citation for 1992. They agreed. That recommendation (of 1991, remember) follows.

I write here some salient facts about the professional career of Eric H. Clamons, Most are known to me because our professional lives have been closely intertwined since early 1957.

To understand the impact of his career, from any viewpoint, one needs to know what ASCII is ... the American Standard Code for Information Interchange. It may be known consciously to only a few, but ASCII is known unconsciously to at least 1/5 of the population of the world. That is because ASCII is the internal code of the ubiquitous PC, or personal computer, and of the communications networks. Everyone that uses a word processor works with letters on the screen that have their corresponding internal code in ASCII. The colors, the moving graphics, the games, and all other PC features are driven by ASCII.

ASCII is an alphabet ... an encoded alphabet. Earlier peoples knew the Morse Code alphabet, encoded as groups of audible dot and dash sounds. Scouts and sailors knew the semaphore alphabet of flags, encoded by both different flags and their positions. Teletype message senders knew the Baudot Code alphabet, encoded by holes in a paper tape. ASCII is the successor to all such alphabets. The ABC of that alphabet is A for Auwaerter (Vice President of Engineering for the Teletype Corporation, which first incorporated ASCII in its equipment to replace the Baudot Code); B for Bemer (author of these words about Eric); and C for Clamons, who shepherded ASCII development within the purview of national and international standardization (by chairing the ASCII development committee) for much of the early historical period.

And many reading these words can find ASCII on their wrist, in the form of a digital timepiece!

I do not know of any degrees held by Clamons higher than a master's, but I do know that a great number of doctoral theses have their foundation in his work.

When I had accepted a position in charge of Systems Programming at UNIVAC in 1962 May, Eric was a Director of Product Planning. Our three years of close work in the code standards area led to his decision to have the UNIVAC 1050 computer be the first in the world to have ASCII as its internal code. Thus preceding the PCs by some 13 years!

In 1965, when I worked in Paris for Compagnie Bull, Eric was Director of Data Systems Standards work for UNIVAC. A great debate was in progress on how the bits of ASCII would be assigned to the tracks on magnetic tape. After many preliminary schemes, ECMA (the European Computer Manufacturers Association) decided to back a scheme of Eric's. The International Standards Committee TC97, Subcommittee 2 (for codes such as ASCII), met in Paris (in the same room that the North Vietnamese and H. Kissinger made their deal). As an ECMA representative I presented flip charts on the "ECMA Compromise". It won. This meant that although IBM at that time had not agreed to use ASCII, nevertheless all IBM peripheral equipment would be compatible with ASCII! Data interchange between IBM and other equipment would be possible, not denied.

Eric won a similar coup in that same period by mapping the ASCII characters to the IBM EBCDIC characters in a fixed way via the possible combinations of punched card codes. This too became an international standard.

Both of these accomplishments of Eric's meant that IBM would not fight against ASCII vigorously (as it certainly could have), and ensured peaceful coexistence until at last IBM resigned itself to ASCII rather than its own proprietary code(s).

In 1970 Eric (a member for many years) assumed chairmanship of the American National Standards Committee X3.2, charged with further development of ASCII, for it was but a primitive 7-bit code at that time. X3.2 handled not only all the theoretical aspects of encoding, but the ways it was incorporated and evidenced in hardware. Not only the computer itself, but peripheral equipment.

As chairman of the" ASCII" committee, Eric did more than adjudicate. He guided, often by producing draft position papers showing more vision than most of the committee possessed. Observe the little blinking "cursor" spot on the PC screen. In 1989 IBM was sued for $300,000,000 by a company that claimed that their methods of deleting/inserting characters on the screen at the blinking spot had preceded IBM's. The "smoking gun" that shot down the suit? Eric's formal papers suggesting the earliest methods, and the record of their being proposed to the international standards committee before the equipment of the claimant was even designed!

Of course his contributions were not limited to codes; they extended to all ways computers were used, and more. Businesses all over the world operate on the fiscal week and fiscal year. The latter starts when Eric said it should, and so convinced the standards bodies.

He is also the designer of the TEX programming language, for which he won the highest honor that Honeywell offers ... the Sweatt Award. I myself have known many programming languages (having chaired the international standards body on this topic for over a decade), and I assert that it is the best I have ever known. So do thousands of other programmers.


Standardization now goes on for so-called Open Systems Interconnection, this to mean that all types of computers and communications networks and their programs can work interchangeably. Just like different automobiles drive somewhat alike. Eric Clamons may be thanked for his part in making the "data highways".

I have discussed only a portion of Eric Clamon's career. It was certainly very distinguished. It differed from most other distinguished careers by the huge and pervasive effect it has had upon the way mankind now exists.