ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange). Today, we certainly take this for granted. To most of us, ASCII is nothing more than a set of characters than any text based application or game can use in order to present contents to the users of these programs. Did you ever wonder when it all started? When ASCII became a standard and why? If so, read on, the details are right here.

For starters if you look at what the ASCII acronym stands for you'll notice that it seems to indicate more than a mere set of characters that you see on your screen. ASCII was a communication standard as well as a character display standard because before that, no two brand of computers could talk to each other. But to understand the depthness of all this, you have to put yourself all the way back to 1963, when it all really began.

Before ASCII a Situation Representation

Back in the early 1960s there was no ASCII standard. Hence computer manufacturers were doing things pretty much any way they saw fit to do. This resulted in the following situation:

  • Different computers had no way of communicating with each.
  • Each manufacturers had their own ways of representing the letters of the alphabet, numbers and the likes.
  • There were over 60 different ways, at the time, to represent these letters, numbers and any specific symbols.
  • I.B.M. With it's different equipment had nine different character sets.

An individual by the name of Bob Bemer coined this situation a Tower of Babel with reason. Bob Bemer worked for I.B.M. (International Business Machine) from 1956 to 1962. Bob Bemer played an important role in the establishment of the ASCII standard and got coined the Father of ASCII. The work towards an ASCII standard started back in 1960.

1961 The Work Begins

Back then, as mentioned above, IBM equipment by themselves used 9 different character sets. As Bob Bemer put it, they couldn't even talk to each other, let alone the outside world? This was midway through Bob Bemer's career at IBM and even then this was becoming quite a concern.In May of 1961 Bob submitted a proposal for a common computer code to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). A committee called the X3.4 which represented most of the computer manufacturers of the time and chaired by an individual called John Auwaerter (vice president of the former Teletype Corporation) was created and immediately got to work on this proposal.

1963 The Year ASCII Was Born

It took the X3.4 Committee more than 2 years to agree on such a common code. What took most of that time were debates which were originated by self-interest more than anything else. This committee represented the manufacturers of the time and as such they all wanted their way of doing things in there understandably. Hence it got down to nitpicking as Bemer said.

In the later part of 1963 Bemer and Auwaerter finally agreed outside the meeting room and ASCII was established. Efforts when then initated to use this ASCII standard as soon as possible.

1964 The First Attempt At ASCII

From 1963 to 1964 I.B.M. worked hard on their Operating System/360 (the first operating system that was to use thenewly created ASCII standard). But when the operating system was ready, the head of OS/360 development team told Bemer that the printers and punch cards wouldn't be ready on time for the release of OS/360.

What they did try to do was try to develop a way for OS/360 to be able to switch between ASCII and EBCDIC (an extension to the old punch-card code). But they weren't successful in that attempt.

1964 - 1981 Where Did ASCII Go?

An 18 year time gap was created between those years. It seems that after this attempt to switch between ASCII and EBCDIC had failed that the value of ASCII was on it's way down. We can only speculate here of course as there doesn't seem to be any official documents on the subject.

It seems that after 1964 business went on as usual for IBM and there were no manifested need for ASCII per se by companies and manufacturers of the time. For 18 years there was no talk of ASCII anywhere per se. At least this wa as far as IBM was concerned.

There was actually one computer in this time laps that made use of ASCII it was the UNIVAC 1050. This computer's main role was much like that of the IBM 1401 which was being used as an off-line peripheral controller. Since 1964 it was also known that Teletype made all their typewriter-like machines work in ASCII.

1981 The Year of the Return Of ASCII

The first IBM PC is born and marks the beginning of when ASCII was actually being used in computers. It was a milestone for ASCII indeed. Since then every computer that was made was ASCII compliant as much as possible. Such standards were created like CBMASCII and others specific to certain machines but in general ASCII was about to be spread all over the globe.

Today ASCII is still being used except for Windows machines which now use Unicode as their new standard. So ASCII is still today (more than 40 years later) a very striving force in the computer industry. From the look of things, it looks like ASCII will have it's role to play for quite some time to come as well.

ASCII The Escape Sequence

ASCII by itself establish standard character definitions as well as some standard formatting things like 13 for Enter, 10 for new line, 9 for Tabulation and the likes. However there's another side of ASCII that is really there to complete the ASCII effort. And that is called the Escape Sequence.

Escape sequence, also created by Bemer was there essentially to allow to escape from one alphabet and enter another. This opened the door for people from all over the world to define their specific alphabets using the escape sequence. Only then was ASCII an international standard. Since 1963, more than 150 alphabets have been defined using the escape sequence.

See Also

Here are links to some other pages and places where you can learn more about the specifics of ASCII as well as character charts and the likes.


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