Getting to Know a Berners-Lee

Computer History Vignettes
by Bob Bemer

My 22nd published paper, "Do It by the Numbers" [1], was triggered by the old story of the comedian's club laughing when someone said a number, because they all knew the joke so numbered in their comedian's handbook.

The scheme used a dictionary of common words, ordered not alphabetically but by usage frequency. These words were given binary code equivalents of variable length, but self-terminating by a rule. Assignment was in binary order by length in number of bits, until the combinations of that length were exhausted, and the length bumped by 1. E.g., the 4 most frequent words were of 2 bits and terminator; the next 8 most frequent words were of 3 bits and terminator; etc.

The transmission method used a similarly equipped computer at each end. One encoding and sending, the other receiving and decoding. Moreover, the dictionary was not static. As new words entered, and previous frequencies changed, their encoded assignments changed for both computers. This was useful for cryptographic purposes.

The article had caused no stir in itself. But then IBM decided it would make a nice publicity splash. It appeared this way in the New York Herald Tribune:

Herald Tribune
Second Section, Page 1 -- 1960 July 08
That set off a lot of correspondence. David Kahn mentioned it in his classic book "The Code Breakers". He said later that even if IBM had not made it a commercial success, it was nevertheless probably very resistant to being broken.

Someone at Ferranti in the UK asked if they could use the method for overseas telegraphic transmission. I checked with IBM, who then considered it only for publicity, not for an actual product, and replied "YES" to the querier, one Conway Berners-Lee.

Meanwhile, my group at IBM was making a program product of it, via two great programmers, Mark Halpern and Bob Brill [2]; in the UK, Berners-Lee also set about doing having it done.

This is the progress report I got from him. I think they were doing it for RCA Communications, premised on the provable 60% volume savings in transmission time.

Letter to Bemer
Letter from the Senior Berners-Lee
I sent my material along to Eric Weiss of the Annals of the History of Computing, and he could not resist poking into it. Tim Berners-Lee replied to him on 1995 Sep 25:

"Thank you for your letter. Conway Berners-Lee is my father. My parents met in the "tin hut" team designing the Ferranti Mark I, he a mathematician, and she (Mary Lee) a programmer. My mother has been dubbed the "first commercial programmer", as the Mark I was the first machine sold commercially, and she programmed it for the customer. They have been involved in a number of reunion gatherings at the Science Museum in London, and there was an article in the (UK) Guardian about the group a few years ago."

I have never met Tim Berners-Lee, and my one email to him remains unanswered, but our careers have intersected technically.


  1. R.W.Bemer, "Do it by the numbers - digital shorthand", Commun. ACM 3,
    No. 10, 530-536, 1960 Oct (Computer Abstracts 61-199)
  2. M. Halpern, "On the Heels of the Pioneers", Annals of the History of Computing, Vol 13, No 1 (1991) -- available on his website.