Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Computer Great Dies

Bob Bemer, one of the computer industry’s greats, died of cancer on June 22 at his home in Possum Kingdom Lake, Texas. He was 84.

Known as the ”Father of ASCII,” Bemer’s contributions to technology are considerable, having spent decades creating, shepherding and developing programming languages still in widespread use today. In addition to devising the first computerized 3-D dynamic perspective while working at Lockheed Martin, Bemer is credited with being one of the first people to warn the world of the Y2K issue and introducing the concept of timesharing (allowing multiple users to use computer simultaneously) on mainframe servers.

He also created the backslash as part of his early work on the ASCII character set used to represent text.

But perhaps Bemer’s most famous legacy is the one used on every computer today: the escape key and sequence used to interrupt the current operation.

He championed the 8-bit-per-byte standard while working at IBM when the company released programming language, the second-oldest programming language and one that is used by many corporations today. Within the COBOL language, he created the identification and environment divisions, two of the four essential divisions in executing a program, as well as the picture (PIC) clause.

Leon Kappelman, PhD., director of the University of North Texas’ Information Systems Research Center, said Bemer’s accomplishments decades ago still resound today, despite the computer industry’s mindset of embracing the newest technologies.

”Bob was so instrumental in laying so many of our foundations,” he said. ”He was a breed you don’t find much today; he did things to make it truly better for everybody.”

Bemer gained some notoriety in the computer world for what some people call his self-imposed moniker as the ”Father of ASCII.” As one of many people on the team crafting the character set for standardization, the moniker fell upon him mainly for his work on influencing people around the world to put ASCII in operation.

While he denies that he invented ASCII himself, on his Web site he wrote, ”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.”

Creation of the character set, he said, couldn’t come from one person but from an international body determining the 127 characters. ASCII is a standard at ANSI, ISO, ECMA and ITU and is considered by some as one of the most successful software standards ever. Its character set is used by computers to communicate binary information, which can be translated into the written language, a technology that ushered in the World Wide Web.

”He made a good living over his life,” Kappelman said, ”but that wasn’t really what drove him. He just wanted the s*** to work great. He was one of a kind.”

This article was first published on

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