(Computer Standards)

Computer History Vignettes

By Bob Bemer

My first trip to Europe occurred after I wrote a lengthy letter to Dr. Charlie DeCarlo in justification of a trip to the ICIP Conference in Paris in 1959. John Backus was giving a paper on his BNF notation, and I argued that I had several technical fish to fry, in addition to giving a paper at the conference of the British Computer Society the following week.

My wife Marion also worked at IBM, as secretary for the Director of Customer Engineering. Somehow I arranged for her to come with me. Like CIA actions, the details are best left black. We left on 1959 June 12, to return on the 30th.

First we took a Lockheed 1049 Constellation, a propeller plane, to Madrid via Lisbon. Each pair of seats had sort of an opaque shower curtain one could draw about the area for privacy, especially while sleeping, for it was an 11-hour flight to land. A few seats behind us were Dr. Herb Grosch and his secretary. At Madrid, it was the summer made famous by Ernest Hemingway, about the memorable duel of fame between Dominguez and Ordoñez (brothers-in-law, or some such). We saw Ordoñez at Madrid's lesser bullring Vista Allegre.

Then to Paris (Orly Airport in those days) for the ICIP Conference. We felt important because all of us delegates had semi-official government status. We stayed at the Claridge Hotel. Dr. John Carr III, in his own memoirs, has recounted how I, astonished by the openness of the prostitutes outside the hotel, attempted to take pictures. Those handbags were heavy and well-wielded! I had to be rescued by the hotel staff.

The conference itself needs to be recounted in its own right. But when it was over we went to Le Toquet, where there was a channel-hopping plane that could carry automobiles. Imagine our surprise when a red Mercedes-Benz convertible came up for loading -- driven by Herb Grosch! Yes, he of "Grosch's Law" about the ratio of computer cost to performance.

From the tiny landing field in Britain, Herb drove us to London. The secretary was missing, so he had room. Then on to Cambridge University, where I was to give my talk. Our hotel was quite nice by English standards -- real tablecloths and all, with the waiter in formal clothes. Unfortunately Cambridge must have not had a cleaning establishment that the waiter could patronize.

We did get a chance to go punting on the river Cam. All the while I kept thinking of all of those limericks.

At the big formal dinner in Kings College, Prof. Eiichi Goto was on my left. Across our table were my wife and Prof. Sandy Douglas. With the dessert, both of them tried to shoot cherry pits at me with a spoon. They always missed, and always hit poor Prof. Goto, who bowed each time and said "So sorry"! Sandy got to like my wife, and many years later he and his son visited us in Phoenix. I gave young Malcolm a dead scorpion from our pool. He took it back to England in a jar, where it came back to vicious life!

After ICIP

Mr. Holland-Martin of the British firm ICT (International Computers and Tabulators) had apparently been in correspondence with John McPherson and Jim Birkenstock of IBM, and had noted the success of their plan to convert the Office Equipment Manufacturers Institute into the Business Equipment Manufacturers Association, with a charter in computer standards work, and sponsor of the ASA X3 committee. McPherson and Birkenstock had me draft a scope and program of work for the new committee, and it was adopted. Character codes and vocabulary were two of the six specific areas covered.

Oddly, Birkenstock's 47-page memoirs (in the 2000 January-March issue of the Annals of the History of Computing) made no mention of these actions. I think it was a lot more earthshaking than many of the things he recounted.

Holland-Martin wished to do much the same in England, and this expanded to the formation of ECMA, the European Computer Manufacturers Association. I will always believe that ECMA advanced computer standards much better than the USA's X3 did, probably because one Dara Hekimi, a Swiss, was named Secretary General. Plus Jean Besse, well known to world-class bridge players, as his righthand man. To win approval, Holland-Martin needed proof of the fast pace of similar work in the U.S. As I was familiar with the program we hoped would be adopted for X3, and had an active role in the COBOL work, McPherson sent me to give a status report to Holland-Martin's group.

This was only two weeks later, on Jul 14. I was so busy that all I had time to pack was a TWA flight bag. The UK immigration people of that time were suspicious of someone making a transatlantic trip with such a minimum of luggage, and questioned me for some time. But I only stayed two days. The trip served a dual purpose, as I also reported on COBOL progress to a group from the British Computer Society.

Fallout from the European Trips

That fall a John Gosden showed up at IBM. A side excursion was to see me, Frank Williams, and Howard Smith -- the subset of my group that was working on standard and extended character sets, prior to activation of ANSI X3. I recall that he got quite excited about what he saw, especially the 8-bit set, which was quite a novelty at that time.

He took this information back to the British Standards Institution, which had a working group on this topic. I was invited to show our work to them the next time I came to London, which was on 1960 Feb 23-27.

I don't now remember why I had to go through Rome and Paris to get to London! Again I juggled the travel accounts, as it was over a weekend. Instead of returning home I had my wife Marion come to London Thursday night. We packed the weekend with shows and such, and she returned home Sunday afternoon in time to be back at work at IBM Monday. A friend, telling her about their trip to Jamaica, chastised her for not really paying attention, asking scornfully "What did you do over the weekend?" The answer "Oh, I went to London" floored her, in those days.

One of the British members to whom I reported the character set work was Hugh McGregor Ross, by all means the main sparkplug of their studies, and very active even today, when he participates in the UNICODE work with his firm (Universe of Characters?). We hit it off very well (so much so that the code that was to become ASCII was first called the Bemer-Ross Code in Europe).

I must have told Gosden of some of my other interests, for after he was hired by Isaac Auerbach to work in the United States, Ike gave me a call and invited me to a luncheon with Gosden to discuss his new project for good practice, eventually the "Auerbach Standard EDP Reports". My air travel history gives no clue to when, for it was either in New York or Philadelphia, and those were not usually airplane trips for me.

IFIP Vocabulary

I do remember that the meeting ran on much longer than expected. Perhaps I gave some good advice, for Ike seemed pleased. I think we must have agreed that a standard vocabulary would be a good thing, for both Gosden and I had been doing work on this, quite apart from what Grace Hopper was doing for the ACM. The problem with her committee was that they did not take any non-US usage into account. Working for the international company IBM, I found this unsatisfactory and provincial.

So did Ike Auerbach. When he founded the IFIP effort, with its first Council meeting in Rome in 1960 June, he saw it as an ideal place to rectify that. He thought correctly that to make a standard, one must first have an input as a basis. He thought that about most aspects of the work that ISO/TC97 was to do. I believe this was an important factor in his virtually singlehanded creation of IFIP, with rather corresponding committees. I was surprised to find that he had unilaterally named me the U.S. representative on the IFIP Vocabulary Committee. Perhaps Gosden's opinion counted. Perhaps he just asked around, found no objection to me, and asked if I would and could accept. Then it was "You are it!"

He may have made a good choice, because I put in a vast amount of effort on it. In correspondence with the other members, between physical meetings, I made meticulous and extensive annotations on the various definitions. I also sent all of this correspondence to John Gosden, to help him and to ensure as much feedback and support as possible.

The IFIP Vocabulary Committee was chaired by Geoffrey Tootill of the UK. We met in 1961 October (Copenhagen), 1962 March (Feldafing), 1963 January (London), 1963 April (Rome), and 1963 September (Oslo). Often these were in conjunction with IFIP Council meetings; we had to make reports.

I remember the London meeting because that was where I picked up my 1963 Sunbeam Alpine, which I still have in restored condition, bearing the Arizona license plate "ESQ SEQ". At that time the Customs rules were that one could take delivery in Europe, drive around a bit, and import the car as "used" for a lower duty. I had a terrible time with that scheme. I was able to drive it only 35 miles because (as a Dick Francis book later enlightened me) it was the worst UK weather in 300 years! Customs was kind, and okayed a "used" condition.

I remember the Rome meeting because we actually worked in EUR, the city that Mussolini created to be the capital of Europe. Very run down, and the exposed electrical wiring was stapled or taped to the marble! I believe much of the movie "La Dolce Vita" was filmed there.

I remember the Oslo meeting in the first place from finding Vice President Johnson shopping at the Christiana Glasmagasin. My wife tried to strike up a conversation with the plainclothes guards, who didn't want that role to be visible. When they demurred she said "Oh, you guys are so obvious!"

Secondly because I was surprised to meet Eric Clamons of UNIVAC on the street; we have had long and fruitful collaboration in the coded character set business. It was Eric that, when I went to Univac, made the Univac 1050 the first true ASCII-based machine. Thirdly I remember it because during a lull I proposed playing "5-in-a-row", or Go-Mo-Ku (a simple derivative of the GO game), with Swedish member Olle Karlquist. For the first five games I was careless and lost all five. The next five I really paid attention, and still lost all five! I mentioned this anomaly to him, whereupon he told me he was the unofficial Go-Mo-Ku champion of Sweden!

The structure of the vocabulary we created was radical and new. Instead of taking a word(s) and writing a definition, we first took the concept, wrote the definition, and ONLY THEN assigned the term in each language considered. And we clustered by concepts, not name.

Among my definitions that I am proudest of are those for "data" as opposed to "information". And I made a great chart for logic operators. It's still in use.

Of the working members, the really active people were:

   Geoffrey Tootill, Chmn     - UK
   Jim Wilde, secretary       - UK
   Robert Bemer               - USA
   Robert Mantz               - Netherlands (Bull)
   Paolo Ercoli               - Italy
   Olle Karlquist             - Sweden
   Rolf Basten                - Germany
   Mme. P. Fevrier            - France
   B. Vauquois                - France
   Pat Hume                   - Canada
   Jean Besse                 - ICC and ECMA
I hired Jim Wilde for Univac because of this work. Flew him over for an interview, agreed, and flew him back again to start work.

Formation of ISO TC97, Computer Standards

This event occurred in Geneva in May of 1961. I chose to tell the story in a separate place. See it there.

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