Chapter 3: Data Representation
Bob Bemer has been a fixture in computing circles since 1945. His resume reads like a list of the influential computing companies of the last half-century. He worked for Douglas Aircraft, RKO Radio Pictures, the Rand Corporation, Lockheed Aircraft, Marquardt Aircraft, Lockheed Missiles and Space, IBM, Univac Division of Sperry Rand, Bull General Electric (Paris), GTE, Honeywell, and finally his own software company, Bob Bemer Software.
The predominance of aircraft manufacturers on Bemer's resume is not surprising because he studied mathematics and holds a Certificate in Aeronautical Engineering from Curtiss-Wright Technical Institute (1941). In the early days of computing, aircraft manufacturers were pioneers in using computers in industry.
During his career Bemer was active in programming language development. He developed FORTRANSET, an early FORTRAN compiler. He was actively involved in the development of the COBOL language and the CODASYL language, an early approach to data base modeling and management. In addition, he was responsible for authorizing funding for the development of SIMULA, a simulation language that introduced many object-oriented features.
Bemer was also an active participant in committees formed to bring universal standards into the new computing industry. He was U.S. representative on the IFIP Computer Vocabulary Committee, Chairman of ISO/TC97/SC5 on Common Programming Languages, and Chairman of X3/SPARC Study Group on Text Processing. However, Bemer is best known for his work on the ASCII computer code, which is the standard internal code for 8-bit PCs today. Early on Bemer recognized that if computers were going to communicate with each other, they needed a standard code for transmitting textual information. Bemer made and published a survey of over 60 different computer codes, thus demonstrating a need for a standard code. He created the program of work for the standards committee, forced the U.S. standard code to correspond to the international code, wrote the bulk of the articles published about the code, and pushed for a formal registry of ASCII-alternate symbol and control sets to accommodate other languages.
Perhaps Bemer's most important contribution is the concept of an escape character. The escape character alerts the system processing the characters that the character(s) following the escape character change the standard meaning of the characters to follow. For example, ESC (N alerts the system that the following characters are in the Cyrillic equivalent of ASCII.
The first version of a 16-bit code called Unicode was published in October 1991. Two factors drove the need for an enlarged code: 16-bit computer architecture was becoming popular, and the expansion of the Internet and the WWW drove the need for a code that could directly include the world's alphabets. ASCII, however, has not gone away; it remains a subset of Unicode.
In May of 2003, Bemer received the IEEE Computer Society's Computer Pioneer Award "For meeting the world's needs for variant character sets and other symbols, via ASCII, ASCII-alternate sers, and escape sequences."
Bob Bemer died on Tuesday, June 23, 2004 at his home on Possum Kingdom Lake in Texas.