(They Nearly Started Without Me)

Computer History Vignettes

By Bob Bemer

The American Standards Association (now ANSI) held the organizational meeting for Committee X3, Computers and Information Processing, at the end of January of 1961 [1]. It adopted the scope and program of work that I had drafted at the request of John McPherson and Jim Birkenstock, IBM Vice Presidents.

The ISO counterpart, Technical Committee TC97, was to hold its organizational meeting in 1961 May, at Geneva. I had prepared a similar but expanded scope and program of work.

I then lived in Weston, Connecticut. Early TV fare had a late night horror movie hosted by a character named Zacherly, made up to look very gaunt, as though risen from the dead. If you bought the sponsor's product (CocoaMarsh), you could get your very own Transylvanian passport. It had Zacherly's picture and a place for yours (as the "creature").

That year I was an ACM National Lecturer, and on the tour I found a self-photo machine in Houston's Hobby Airport. A horrible grimace completed my passport, as issued by Transylvania.

My wife Marion joined me in Las Vegas, and we drove to Los Angeles for the Western Joint Computer Conference, thence to San Francisco to participate in an Armer-Gruenberger RAND Symposium. Back overnight to Idlewild Airport (now JFK), where I had preparked a car with a change of clothing. Then to the TWA counter for trip 1961-#5 while she returned home.

There I presented my Transylvanian passport to much laughter from the agents. And my real one. The agent said "This one isn't nearly so funny - it expired yesterday!" I asked how I could repair the situation. Impossible. I persisted. Finally he allowed that he could try the duty officer at the State Department in Washington, as I insisted the conference was quite important to the U.S., but the plane left in 45 minutes.

Ten minutes to takeoff, the duty officer called with approval. All my luggage was put in a shopping cart, and I was exhorted to "run" all the distance to the plane, parked out in the field ready to leave. When I scrambled up the ramp and appeared in the cabin everyone cheered, having all been told the story, with the low odds of my making it.

I had no idea what trouble I might find at Orly, but I was cut out of the line by an Air France stewardess holding a length of Teletype tape. While everyone else had to go through formalities, I was just shown to a taxi and told to go to the U.S. Embassy. There I told it to the Marines. An important official was awakened at home, but declined to come to the embassy. I persisted, and he was awakened again. This time he arrived, about 2 A.M., and reissued my passport under embassy authority. His remark about my taxi ride was "You sure must have an honest face. Don't you know that Paris is now under martial law?"

A quick sleep at the Hotel Scribe, and I caught the planned plane to Geneva. To more surprise I was again cut from the herd by a young man from the U.S. Embassy, who drove me directly to the conference, even helping with my luggage. I don't know who they thought I was, but it is nice to look back and believe that something really important to the world did happen there -- the genesis of worldwide standards for computer usage and data interchange.


  1. J.A.N. Lee, "The 25th Anniversary of Committee X3", Annals of the History of Computing, 9, No. 3/4, pp. 345-354.
Back to History Index            Back to Home Page