Computer Pioneer Bob Bemer, 84
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 25, 2004; Page B06
Robert W. "Bob" Bemer, 84, who helped invent the language used by most of the world's computers to translate text to numbers and who was the first scientist to warn of the Y2K problem, died of cancer June 22 at his home on Possum Kingdom Lake in Texas.
Without the invention of the computer code ASCII, there would be no e-mail, no World Wide Web, no laser printers and no video games. Mr. Bemer, known as "the father of ASCII," created the code in 1961 by assigning standard numeric values to letters, numbers, punctuation marks and other characters.
"We had over 60 different ways to represent characters in computers," Mr. Bemer told Computerworld magazine in 1999, describing the time before the American Standard Code for Information Interchange was created. "It was a real Tower of Babel."
He was well known in the computer industry (The Washington Post in 1999 said, "In the weenieworld of data processing, he is a minor deity"), but he broke into wider public consciousness when government and businesses began to panic about the "millennium bug" that threatened to shut down the computer systems on which society had grown so dependent.
Mr. Bemer had first published a warning in 1971 about the problems that would arise from using two digits instead of four to represent years in computer code. Unlike some of the doomsayers who came after him, he knew what he was talking about: He was involved in the original effort to create government standards for the computer industry.
Having learned from work he had done in the 1950s on genealogical records for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he realized that truncating a year's date was a penny-wise and pound-foolish solution to the cost of saving computer space. But Pentagon bureaucrats, among the largest computer users on Earth, refused to accept that 1999 was a better code than 99. The National Bureau of Standards went along, although it said programmers could voluntarily use four instead of two numbers.
What that decision led to was the fear, as 1999 turned to 2000, that data stored deep in computer code would misinterpret 00 not as the year 2000 but as 1900, or even 1000. Data might scramble, possibly causing nuclear reactors to go haywire, credit card transactions to vanish and automated processes that govern prison door locks, airline operations and giant dam gates to refuse to turn on or shut down.
"It was the fault of everybody, just everybody," Bemer told Time magazine and many others. "If [Adm.] Grace Hopper [the founder of COBOL] and I were at fault, it was for making the language so easy that anybody could get in on the act."
Mr. Bemer kept up the alarm, even trying to get President Richard M. Nixon to declare 1970 "the year of the computer" in order to highlight the problem. He wrote about the problem for the technically literate in the Honeywell Computer Journal in 1971 and for the public in Interface Age in 1979. The response was derision -- when anyone bothered to respond. He continued the warnings until he retired in 1982. No one listened until it was almost too late.
Although the public may have thought the millennium warnings were overblown, an estimated $122 billion was spent in the United States alone to fix the Y2K problem, according to IDC, a technology and telecommunications research firm.
"I think he took a lot of pride in the fact that there wasn't a huge problem, and maybe people like him who were sounding the alarm were getting the companies to do what they needed to do," said his stepson, Glen Peeler.
Throughout his career, Mr. Bemer had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He helped Hopper create the computer language that he named COBOL, or Common Business Oriented Language. He helped create the standard measurement of eight bits per byte. Computer users have Mr. Bemer to thank for the backslash character and for the escape sequence, which allows a computer to break from one language and enter another.
"I used to say that I never got a nickel for the escape sequence. A nice receptionist at the Dallas InfoMart did give me five pennies, but I spent them," he said on his Web site.
Mr. Bemer did not cash in on the financial bonanza of the computer revolution, his family said. His cars bore the vanity license tags ASCII and COBOL. He lived in a cliff-top house two hours west of Dallas on a reservoir, which he told visitors would have been handy in case he needed to "drain the lake" for drinking water. He collected Pogo Possum comic books and made lists of every airplane flight he'd ever taken, every country he'd visited and every trip to see his parents.
He was born in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. He received a bachelor's degree in mathematics at Albion College in 1940 and a certificate of aeronautical engineering at the Curtiss-Wright Technical Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., the next year. He spent time as a machinist, furniture-maker and movie-set designer before he was hired as a programmer at RAND Corp. in 1951.
He worked for Lockheed Aircraft, Marquardt Aircraft, Lockheed Missiles and Space, IBM Corp. and the Univac division of Sperry Rand. He went to Paris in 1965 for a year to work for Bull General Electric, then back to the United States with GE and Honeywell Information Systems until his 1982 retirement. He promptly started his own software company, which he eventually sold to BigiSoft Inc., retaining the title of chief scientist.
"He was a hardworking man," Peeler said. "He was a relic, a throwback, old-school. He was always on a computer doing things."
In 2003, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers' Computer Society awarded him its Computer Pioneer medal.
He was married six times to five women and had five children by his first wife and a sixth by another. He also had two stepchildren, nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company