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Bob Bemer, 84; Helped Code Computer Language

June 27, 2004|From Times Wire Services

Bob Bemer, a computer pioneer known as the "Father of ASCII," the method by which computers translate letters and numbers into digital language, has died. He was 84.

Bemer, who published some of the earliest warnings of possible Y2K problems, died Tuesday of cancer at his home along Possum Kingdom Lake, Texas, about 120 miles west of Dallas, said his stepson, Glen Peeler.

Bemer helped invent the American Standard Code for Information Interchange, an encoding system used in nearly every computer. It allows computers, which can interpret only numbers, to see text as a series of numbers.

Before ASCII -- pronounced "As-kee" -- was instituted in 1963, there was no standardized language to use between computers made by different manufacturers, which rendered communication nearly impossible.

"Without ASCII, you wouldn't have the Internet, you wouldn't have e-mail, you wouldn't have anything," computer historian Jean Sammet told the Baltimore Sun some years ago.

In the late 1950s, Bemer played an important advisory role in the development of Cobol, or Common Business Oriented Language, which the Defense Department was eager to institute as a common language for accounting and business.

Bemer also contributed the escape key and the backslash to the field of computer technology.

It was while working on a computer program for the vast genealogical records of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that Bemer first identified the Y2K issue. Computer programs had generally knocked off the numerals designating the century so there would be more places to add data.

But Bemer recognized that that shortcut would not work with the genealogy records, which stretched back centuries.

"I realized then that using two-digit years wasn't going to hold up," he told the Sun.

He first published warnings of the Y2K computer problem in 1971 and did so again in 1979. He also made several media appearances to discuss the issue in the years leading up to 2000.

Had his early warnings been taken seriously, billions of dollars in Y2K cleanup efforts could have been saved.

As recently as a month ago, "he was on the computer every day," Peeler said Wednesday. "He is a man who literally worked just about every day until he died. He felt at home sitting in front of a [computer] screen."

Born Feb. 8, 1920, in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., Bemer earned a degree in mathematics at Albion College. In the 1940s, he moved to Southern California, where he worked as a machinist for Douglas Aircraft and as a set designer for RKO Pictures before beginning his programming career in 1949 at Rand Corp. He later worked at IBM and Honeywell.

It was while he was at IBM in the 1950s and '60s that he contributed to the development of ASCII.

On his website, he described himself as a "computer software consultant, futurist and raconteur."

"He never got the coding out of his system," Peeler said. "He was a coder until he couldn't code anymore. He lived it and breathed it."

In addition to Peeler, Bemer is survived by his wife, Bettie Seals Peeler Bemer; six children; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

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