Bob Bemer and Communication (ASCII)

Marconi's famed transmission was a (1-letter) word in Morse code, aural because duration told whether it was a dot or a dash element of the code. Today ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) has superseded the Morse, Baudot, and Teletype codes.

Successful communication demands recognition. For aural and voice signals, the sounds heard are usually self-identifying. For visual facsimile, that seen is also self-identifying. But networks do not now recognize visual and aural commands for switching and control. What they do recognize is ASCII, which is also the ISO Code, and also Alphabet No. 5 of CCITT, the International Consultative Committee for Telephone and Telegraph.

Bob Bemer, at IBM, foresaw eventual computer involvement in communication. In 1960 July he described a communication method using computers at both ends, the originator compressing the text, the receiver reconstituting it.

The 1961 June Reader's Digest (origin Kiwanis Magazine) said Bemer headed a group of programmers devising languages by which "machines can talk with machines - languages that will facilitate the exchange of information, by radio, microwave, or telephone wire between computers at widely separated centers ..."

Bob Bemer was a major force in the creation of ASCII:

  • making and publishing a survey, of over 60 different computer codes
    in use, which raised awareness of need and triggered a common effort,
  • creating the program of work for the standards groups developing it,
  • forcing the U.S. standard code to be identical to the international,
  • making the major proposals for its content and form,
  • writing the bulk of the published articles about it,
  • conceiving and proposing formal registry of ASCII-alternate symbol
    and control sets to permit interchange of all of the world's
    characters, and
  • creating, for this to work, the escape sequence mechanism, which he
    placed in the public domain.
Realizing that the primary ASCII content is but a tiny subset of the alphabets and symbols which must be accommodated in a worldwide communication system, Bemer devised (in 1960) the universal switching concept in use today, via the Escape character he caused to be placed in ASCII and its registered alternates.

ESC followed by (N tells the receiving device that the following characters will be the Cyrillic equivalent of ASCII, until further changed similarly. Why? Because that sequence introduces Set #37 of the International Register of Coded Character Sets to be used with Escape Sequences, maintained in Geneva.

ESC [31;42m tells video screens all over the world to change to red letters on a green background. Why? Because that is in the standard, both national and international, for controlling display terminals.

Not all video screens now accept and display the Cyrillic alphabet. But they do in Russia, on the Internet. Nearly 200 other sets are now registered. Soon all users worldwide will have equipment that displays a wide range of the world's symbols and characters, alphabets or ideographs (Japanese was registered in 1969).

As most communication (even television) now changes from analog to digital, the combination of ASCII and escape sequences is ever more useful, for more than alphabets and video control. Modems that connect to the networks all have their own escape sequences for handshake and control, sometimes proprietary. Sender and receiver addresses for E-mail, the Internet, and the Web are all given in ASCII characters. Escape sequences introduce and identify many types of data - characters, fax, TV, pixels, audio, photocomposition, etc.

Marconi "saw the realization of the free flow of information between peoples as a unifying bond that no force could resist." But data communication can occur without recognizing information content. ASCII and embedded escape sequences identify which process to use to convert freely flowing data into intelligible information.

This is the very essence of the HTML file you are now viewing!   Bob Bemer played a very large role in making it all possible.

Further Reading:

  • See Mary Brandel's ComputerWorld Article
  • See Jim Price's ASCII Page
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