That Troublesome "Father of"

Computer History Vignettes

by Bob Bemer

I have a partial history of ASCII submitted to the Annals of the History of Computing. To a person, five reviewers have choked on my explanation for the sobriquet "Father of ASCII" as applied to me. Self-aggrandizement, they say. In other words, "pushy". I very much wanted the article published, so I took that part out before resubmission. You see it here, pretty much in the original verbiage.

The reviewers are wrong about my motives! Use of the term may confer credit. It may also confer opprobrium, misunderstanding, and nefarious motives, in the Internet world of slippery truth and outright lies. And it is graffiti on the ivory tower of the Unicode devotees.

So I did not want the current interpretation to stand, for my problem is that such a sobriquet implies too much, and very often the term is used inaccurately. Or is taken to imply my responsibility for things I don't want to be held or thought responsible for. So I'm tucking the story in with my other vignettes on my site, where I have some authoritarian control.

A Google search of the Web for "Father of ASCII" currently yields some 100 hits, all referring to this author. An editor of Computerworld once suggested that the term was self-assigned. And many places that the phrase is used are in error. So the problem really needs correction to the world.

I did not create the phrase "Father of ASCII". It came to me in the late 1960s as the parcel address for such a person at General Electric in Phoenix, where I was then working. Someone with knowledge forwarded it to me, and inside was a letter starting "Dear Bob". The sobriquet was then spread widely by Interface Age Magazine [1]. I accept it for being a major force in the creation and adoption of ASCII, as told in [2].

Please recognize first that the word "ASCII" is now generic, even though I tried (unsuccessfully) for a long time to have it called the "ISO Code". And we must recognize four large segments or aspects of the ASCII world:

  1. ASCII Art
  2. ASCII Art Offspring -- Emoticons
  3. ASCII The Coded Character Set
  4. ASCII The Base Platform for All Coded Character Sets, and the Web

So is "Father of ASCII" correct for all of these?

Well, yes and no.

ASCII Art

This one was surprising. There are thousands of websites devoted to making pictures of a sort with the graphic symbols of ASCII. Of course with a system of dot combinations, formerly called "rotogravure", they'd be even happier. That was sort of done once, in a registered ASCII variant called "Teletext".

But any parenthood could apply only to the set of graphic symbols. In [3] it is shown that I contributed, via accepted proposals, the characters      { } [ \ ] ESC to ASCII, and that none of these had ever existed in the internal character set of any computer before STRETCH (with the possible exception of square brackets in the character set of the LGP-30).

US (Unit Separator), RS (Record Separator), GS (Group Separator), and FS (File Separator) are 4 other characters that I put in very early, but without those names. And they have no graphic shape, anyway. The backslash seems to be the character that would be most missed.

Parenthood of ASCII Art is tenuous, at least. A DNA test won't point at me.

ASCII Art Offspring -- Emoticons

The edition of the Oxford English Dictionary unveiled in the Fall of 2002 had "emoticon" among its list of new words. Apparently the addition was overdue, for 138,000 Web pages then contained that word!

The OED definition is not at hand, but apparently an "emotion-expressing-icon" is much used to compact one's e-mail messages, so much so that the users have evolved their own standard emoticons, as (again) constructed from the ASCII characters. E.g.:

Any fatherhood by this author is totally denied!

ASCII The Coded Character Set

Most evidence, and the article submitted to the Annals, shows that I had substantial influence in putting the official standards efforts into operation, in the U.S. and worldwide. But I exerted little fatherly influence, leaving the selections and code placement to the international bodies who did that as their primary reason for existence. Dr. J.A.N. Lee said, in his bio for me in [4] that: "... He was not the inventor of ASCII ..."

True. ASCII was not "inventable". There was no way to achieve a standard code of the present universality without leaving it to a vast group of manufacturers and workers. Lee explained as much, adding that:

 

Bemer's forceful articulation and demonstration of the simplicity of the "escape sequence" solution achieved acceptance of a US standard that rendered as nonstandard all existing computer designs, software systems, and telecommunications hardware, including the whole repertoire of IBM equipment that used EBCDIC ..."

I once attempted to explain the "father" usage in a letter to BYTE Magazine [6], in response to a man who claimed [5] that ASCII was obsolete:

But it is not correct to say that I created ASCII. To say this insults many people who dedicated years of their lives working out compromises between dozens of existing codes for the resultant single code. I have never demurred at being called the "father of ASCII", as it is the "mother" who creates.

But a father is usually needed to get things started, like my maneuvering of the development work to be done on an international basis, ensuring the cooperation and support of all countries.

The following squib, from Honeywell's internal newspaper, circa 1979, tells of my efforts to spawn the ASCII project:


 
ASCII meeting
At Reata Pass Steakhouse

ASCII -- The Base for All Character Sets, and the Web

Now the real fathering, of the mechanisms that enable the Worldwide Web.

Upon initial interest in standard encoding methods, I saw the problem not as creating a single standard code, but as having a basic code and system from which the multitude of graphic symbols in the world could be encoded in groupings reached by temporary departure from the base system. I envisioned alternate coding tables, invoked dynamically as identified by

"an identifier self-identifiable as an identifier"

Thus the genesis of the "escape" character. Like "Now hear this" on a Navy ship, followed by a message to be obeyed, "escape" fits the "orderly provision for expansion and alternatives" clause of my original program-of-work statement.

References:

  1. R.W. Bemer, "Inside ASCII - Part I",
    Interface Age Magazine 3, No. 5, 96-102, 1978 May.

  2. ASCII.HTM    (current 2003 Dec 01)

  3. R.W. Bemer, "The Great Curly Brace Trace Chase", BRACES.HTM    (current 2003 Dec 01)

  4. J.A.N. Lee, "Computer Pioneers", book, IEEE CS Press, 840 pp., 1995.

  5. R. Collins, "Time to replace ASCII?", Letter to editor, BYTE Magazine, 420, 1990 Jan.

  6. R.W. Bemer, Letter to editor, BYTE Magazine, 36, 1990 Jun.