Answers for a Canadian 6th-Grader
Computer History Vignettes

By Bob Bemer

I received an e-mail from a Canadian student, asking some well-pointed questions deserving careful reply. When I passed my answers on to my honorary son, he told me that he had learned much from them that he had not previously understood. This triggered the thought that perhaps that text might be useful to put on this site, and with the approval of the querier I do so, after editing out confidential information.


Date: Wed, 17 Oct 2001 ...
From: [Jonathan]
Subject: I have some really important questions
To: Bob Bemer 

Dear Mr. Bemer,
I am a grade 6 student and I'm doing a project about you
and would like to ask a few questions of you.
1) When did you create the Esc key?
2) Are you planning to help with the Unicode project?
3) Do you feel the Internet will be attacked by terrorists?
4) If you had one wish and only one wish, what would it be
   and why? (If it's too personal, don't send me the info).
5) Out of all your inventions, which one do you feel is the
   greatest and is the most important to mankind?   
I am doing a project called "the evening of eminence" and
I decided that you are the most suitable person because I
really enjoy working on the computer, and you are one of
my favourite heroes. You have contributed a lot to society.
Thank you for taking time to answer my questions.
PS: if you ever go to Vancouver Canada, visit the Roberts
Adult Education Centre on Comox Street. Go to the top floor
and look for the room filled with many many computers.
Go on Mondays at 5:30 - 8:30. Reason being is I help with
infotech 11 and 12 there and we recently learned a bit
about you and I feel the class would really learn a lot
about you, ASCII and your other wonderful inventions.

Dear Jonathan:

Your letter of request indicates to me that you are a very superior form of Grade 6 student, one for whom I will take great care and detail in my reply. I'm glad that I need not talk down to you, and will consider you equivalent to a 20-year old when I write it!

I always take much interest in corresponding with Canadians, for I was nearly one, being born just 500 metres from Canada, in a town of the same name -- Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, just across the St. Marys River.

So here is my considered reply. You are free to make any use you wish of my reply, for no copyrights or other restrictions apply. You may republish at will, or make any other use.

1) When did you create the Esc key?

Sometime in 1959, during the design of IBM's Stretch computer. I had been, many years before that, frustrated with the lack of a lower case alphabet for computers. I was doing what might be called a very early form of word processing, and I got tired of reading text in all capitals. As everyone does, which is why lower case exists, being designed to be easier to read.

The Stretch computer was the first to have an 8-bit byte, as all previous computers had no more than 6-bit bytes. This permitted two cases for the alphabet. I was fortunate to be given the task of designing its character set. But at that time I had already been profiled in the New Yorker magazine and Reader's Digest (circa 1957) as predicting that computers would soon talk to each other via communication lines.

This was not only the impetus for ASCII, but also for a means to expand the character set(s) far beyond the 256 maximum for 8 bits. We could not go beyond 8 bits then, because that would be too expensive with the manufacturing technology of that day (no chips!). So how to accommodate the other symbols just waiting for computer processing? Chinese, Cyrillic, European accented letters, many more currency signs, welding symbols (!), and even the circuit design symbols that computer engineers themselves used?

So I introduced, as a full-fledged member of the character set, an escape character that would serve much like a railroad switch. Character(s) following escape would not be treated as themselves, but rather as an identifier for a new set of symbols to replace the standard set -- temporarily, until switched back to the main line.

Initially, this was to lure the many computer manufacturers, ALL with different character sets (over 60 then), to adopt a universal coded set (which became ASCII) without crippling their own investments in software and data for their own sets, because they could use the escape to shift back and forth.

Beginning with much the same character group, with different encoding, this eventually led to NEW and additional character sets, with the same encoding. And when TV-type screens came along, escape also worked to move the cursor around, and to change the display colors. When laser printers were invented, they too used escape to control which font, which size, which of regular-bold-italic, etc.

You can find many more detailed stories about escape on my website

2) Are you planning to help with the Unicode project?

Actually the man that started the expansion from 8-bit bytes to 16-bit bytes (and on up) was H. MacGregor Ross of the United Kingdom (although he is pretty much out of that work now). In early days, ASCII was known in Europe as the Bemer-Ross Code.

There are many competent people from all over the world working on Unicode now, and I cannot see how I could add much input to their work. Oddly enough, where once those enthusiasts claimed that 65,536 characters would suffice forever, they are now admitting that they will still have to use escape to get beyond that number!

But I still feel that the 16-bit byte is not really needed by the average computer user, and that manufacturers are reluctant to offer many of us a less expensive choice, once they go the 16-bit route in their software.

3) Do you feel the Internet will be attacked by terrorists?

Yes I do. The very existence of so many viruses today is a clear signal that our life can be brought to a crippled state via a concerted and well-planned effort.

But this doesn't have to be. The population of the United States, and perhaps Canada, is lazy to an extreme. They do not seem to want to take the proper steps to prevent such an impending attack, and the only thing I can think of is for the software manufacturers to build in proper safeguards. They do not now, and I'll explain.

The key lies in the data files owned by a person, business, or government. Everything else is cheap and can be replaced over time. Even a brain that still works fine is no good if your memory is entirely gone. You may not even remember how to survive.

  • If the telephone lines are fried, we can go to the mails, for we still have our data.

  • If your PC is fried, they're still making them, have plenty in stock, and can make more. Get a new one. Cheap.

  • If the files in your PC are lost or corrupted, there is just one recovery method. When your PC is working again, reload it with the good copies of your files that you periodically put on the little diskettes or CDs. What? You don't have a regular update schedule to write all of your current data to safe storage that the terrorists cannot get at?

I myself have 2 PCs -- one in the house and one in my office. The second one costs about as much as 1/20 of a car, and it seems that most people can afford an entire extra car.

Periodically I save all files I have been working with to diskettes. Then I take these to the other PC, and reload via those diskettes so that both PCs are fairly well in sync as far as file content goes. If the hardware fails on one of my machines, I'm still in business on the other PC while I replace the bad one.

I wish the U.S. Government would settle with Microsoft to the effect that: "Build into your software some programs that won't let one use the machine if the files are not backed up often enough, and we'll forgive you everything else!" Every software system builder already keeps such change records, and this would be a simple task.

4) If you had one wish and only one wish, what would it be and why?

I have a current project, labeled "Universal Time Engine". I think it could be my final contribution, and a major one because about 5% of all calculation has to do with time, and every programmer there is has to write it differently, at a huge waste of time, talent, and money. I can get it to work right for everybody. So my wish, at almost 82 years of age, would be to live long enough to see it to fruition and success.

5) Out of all your inventions, which one do you feel is the greatest and most important to mankind?

I'm inclined to think the escape sequence. Without it we would not have the Internet. Nor would we have laser printers. Nor could all the peoples of the world talk to each other whenever they needed or wanted to. When I got a Distinguished Alumnus Award from my college, a lady came up to me and thanked me profusely for making it possible to talk often with her brother in Russia, for the many years he had been away. Proof enough, and gratification enough, for me.

Thanks for asking, Jonathan.

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