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
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
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
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
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.
- 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?
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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