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Guide to the Robert (Bob) Bemer papers X3054.2005
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Collection Details
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  • Processing Information
  • Access Restrictions
  • Publication Rights
  • Preferred Citation
  • Immediate Source of Acquisition
  • Biographical/Historical Note
  • Scope and Content of the Collection
  • Arrangement
  • Separated Material

  • Title: Robert (Bob) Bemer papers
    Identifier/Call Number: X3054.2005
    Contributing Institution: Computer History Museum
    Language of Material: English
    Physical Description: 5.42 Linear feet 4 record cartons, 1 manuscript box
    Date (bulk): Bulk, 1955-1999
    Date (inclusive): 1943-2002
    Abstract: The Robert (Bob) Bemer papers, ranging in date from 1943 to 2001, with the bulk between 1955 and 1959, trace Bemer’s career in programming at IBM, Rand Corporation, General Electric, and Honeywell, Inc., as well as his personal interest in documenting, sharing and preserving information about the history of computing. Bemer was responsible for developing six ASCII characters, played a key role in the development of COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language), and identified what became known as the Y2K problem. Materials include correspondence, memoranda, published papers and articles, speeches, newspaper clippings, and technical documentation. Roughly one-fourth of the collection relates to Bemer’s discovery of the Y2K problem and his subsequent work to solve it. The remaining three-fourths of the collection relates to Bemer’s work on programming languages and standards, and among these documents are what Bemer called “vignettes” about the history of computing and software, as remembered by Bemer and his contemporaries.
    creator: Bemer, R. W., 1920-2004

    Processing Information

    Collection surveyed by Rita Wang and Sydney Gulbronson Olson, 2017. Collection processed by Jack Doran, 2018.

    Access Restrictions

    The collection is open for research.

    Publication Rights

    The Computer History Museum (CHM) can only claim physical ownership of the collection. Users are responsible for satisfying any claims of the copyright holder. Requests for copying and permission to publish, quote, or reproduce any portion of the Computer History Museum’s collection must be obtained jointly from both the copyright holder (if applicable) and the Computer History Museum.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of Item], [Date], Robert (Bob) Bemer papers, Lot X3054.2005, Box [#], Computer History Museum.

    Immediate Source of Acquisition

    Gift of Bettie Bemer, 2004.

    Biographical/Historical Note

    Robert “Bob” William Bemer was born February 8, 1920 in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Known among his colleagues and contemporaries as “the father of ASCII,” he was a member of the American Standards Association committee that defined the “ASCII” character-encoding standard for electronic telecommunications and computing. Bemer was responsible for six characters in ASCII, most notably the escape and backslash characters. He later played a key role in the development of the COBOL programming language, which drew on aspects of Bemer’s COMTRAN programming language developed at IBM. Bemer is credited with the first public identification of the Y2K problem, publishing in 1971 his concern that the standard representation of the year in calendar dates within computer programs by the last two digits rather than the full four digits would cause serious errors in confusing the year 2000 with the year 1900.
    After receiving his B.A. in mathematics from Albion College and his certificate in aeronautical engineering from Curtiss-Wright Technical Institute of Aeronautics, he took a job as an aerodynamicist at the Douglas Aircraft Company. Several other jobs followed, including manager of the numerical analysis group at Marquardt Aircraft and manager of the mathematical analysis department at Lockheed Missile Systems division before he took a position as assistant manager of programming research at the IBM Corporation in 1955. It was at IBM that Bemer worked on both COBOL and ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange). In the following years at IBM, he worked on a team that developed FORTRAN and then helped develop the first load-and-go printing system called PRINT I. Bemer then took a job at the Sperry Rand Corporation’s Univac Division in 1962 before moving to France in 1965 to work at Bull General Electric as General Manager. He returned to the U.S. as the manager for systems and software engineering integration at General Electric, and it was in this capacity that he developed the ideas around what he would call the “Software Factory” as a solution to the so-called “software crisis” that was a major concern in late-1960’s computing. After GE computer division’s acquisition of Honeywell, Inc., Bemer stayed on in several successive positions before retiring as senior consulting engineer in 1982.
    Bemer worked tirelessly to publicize and try to compel the United States Government to address the Y2K problem from the early stages of its discovery. He campaigned unsuccessfully to have the Nixon Administration deem 1970 “The Year of the Computer,” and in 1971, published, “What’s the Date?” in the Honeywell Computer Journal. A much wider-circulated Interface Age Magazine published another article by Bemer titled, “Time and the Computer” in 1979. In 1997, he founded BMR Software. With growing concern about the Y2K problem, Bemer made numerous media appearances, and eventually sold BMR Software to BigiSoft.
    In 2002, Bemer received the IEEE Computer Pioneer Award for his lifetime achievements, namely “meeting the world’s needs for variant character sets and other symbols, via ASCII, ASCII-alternate sets, and escape sequences.”
    Bemer passed away on June 22, 2004 at his home in Possum Kingdom Lake, Texas after a battle with cancer.

    Scope and Content of the Collection

    The Robert (Bob) Bemer papers consist of materials created over the course of Bemer’s career in various software and management positions at IBM, Rand Corporation, General Electric, and Honeywell, Inc. The collection represents his work related to programming and code standards, text processing and the Y2K problem, and spans from 1943 to 2002, with the bulk of the collection ranging from 1955 to 1999.
    Materials related to the Y2K problem consist of several public relations files Bemer kept where he either appeared in interviews or was mentioned in articles concerned with what is variously called the Y2K problem or millennium bug. There is also some correspondence and a collection of web publications written by other experts, as well as one folder on a Y2K conference held in Washington, DC in 1998.
    Much of the collection’s remaining content concerns Bemer’s activities related to programming standards such as ASCII, COBOL and FORTRAN, as well as his work with character sets, text processing, printer technology and OCR. These materials are made up of technical papers, specifications, manuals, correspondence, memoranda, meeting minutes, and conference proceedings. Some of these folders also contain activities and histories in computing (what Bemer deemed “vignettes”) that were contemporary to Bemer’s work, but which he may not have been directly involved with.
    The collection’s original order is a mix of arrangement by either form or subject, and this arrangement has been retained. Bemer’s notable accomplishments and professional activities are sometimes arranged by name (as is the case for character sets, escape sequences, programming standards, and Y2K problem), but the researcher will also find materials related to these activities in the memoirs, published papers, scrapbooks, and speeches and papers folders. The folder list is arranged alphabetically.


    The collection is arranged into one series:
    Series 1, Papers, 1943-2002; bulk 1955-1999

    Separated Material

    A slide rule was separated from the main collection. To view catalog records for separated material search the CHM catalog at http://www.computerhistory.org/collections/search/ .

    Subjects and Indexing Terms

    ASCII (Character set)
    Assembly languages (Electronic computers)
    COBOL (Computer program language)
    Electronic data processing
    FORTRAN (Computer program language)
    Year 2000 date conversion (Computer systems)