June 24, 2004 by

Bob Bemer

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Categories: Scientists

Working at IBM Corp. in the late 1950s, Robert W. “Bob” Bemer helped develop the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII), which translates computer binary code into a language consisting of readable numbers and letters. The computer pioneer was so proud of his work on the coding system that he ordered an “ASCII” vanity license plate. It was attached to his car by a silver frame that noted: “Yes, I am the father of ASCII.”
Bemer also coined the term “COBOL,” developed the technology behind the Escape (ESC) key, which rests in the top left corner of most computer keyboards, and created the coding concept behind hyperlinks. In 1971, he was the first computer scientist to warn the government about the impending Y2K phenomenon. In two separate articles, Bemer theorized the potential problems that could arise from using two digits to represent years in computer code.
As the year 2000 approached, many people in power panicked, thinking the computers that run nuclear reactors, banks and electrical grids would crash when the date switched from ’99 to ’00. Mostly ignored for three decades, the “millennium bug” ended up costing the United States approximately $122 billion.
Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., Bemer earned a music scholarship to Albion College. Although he was a skilled cellist and trumpet player, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a certificate of aeronautical engineering from the Curtiss-Wright Technical Institute. For his contributions to science and technology, he received the 2002 Computer Pioneer Award from the IEEE Computer Society.
Bemer died on June 22 of cancer. He was 84.

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