Guide to the Robert (Bob) Bemer papers
Finding aid prepared by Jack Doran and Sara Chabino Lott
Processing of this collection was made possible through generous funding from the National Archives’ National Historical Publications
& Records Commission: Access to Historical Records grant.
Computer History Museum
1401 N. Shoreline Blvd.
Mountain View, CA, 94043
Title: Robert (Bob) Bemer papers
Identifier/Call Number: X3054.2005
Computer History Museum
Language of Material:
5.42 Linear feet
4 record cartons, 1 manuscript box
Date (bulk): Bulk, 1955-1999
Date (inclusive): 1943-2002
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.
Bemer, R. W., 1920-2004
Collection surveyed by Rita Wang and Sydney Gulbronson Olson, 2017. Collection processed by Jack Doran, 2018.
The collection is open for research.
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
[Identification of Item], [Date], Robert (Bob) Bemer papers, Lot X3054.2005, Box [#], Computer History Museum.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Gift of Bettie Bemer, 2004.
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
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)
Papers, Series 1,
Anecdotes of mistakes in computing design and management
Association for Computing Machinery (ACM 70)
Character sets - general
Character sets - International Organization for Standardization TC 46/SC 4
Code and text processing - International Organizatino for Standardization
1958-1989; bulk 1967-1979
IBM 650 - Annals of the History of Computing special issue
IBM 650 - Flair system
IBM 650 - lab book
IBM 650 - photographs and clippings
Meeting minutes - International Organization for Standardization and European Computer
Memoirs - applied programming
Memoirs - collating sequence, optical character recognition, "gang agley"
Memoirs - computing prior to Fortran
Memoirs - printers, 0 and O, square root, X-3.4.5
Memoirs - timesharing, Federal Aviation Administration, compression, 3-D, Approximation, polynomia,
Print I system
1953-1989; bulk 1960-1969
Memoirs - Various
Optical character recognition
1967-1970; 1990; bulk 1969
Reports - Rand Corporation
Speeches and papers
Text processing - Text Executive Processor (TEX)
Text processing - various materials
Text Reckoning and Compiling (TRAC) language
Universal Time Engine - project planning/technical specifications/programs
Universal Time Engine - project summary
Universal Time Engine - proposal
Universal Time Engine - specifications (excerpt)
Universal Time Engine/program language
Y2K problem - articles and presentations on the bug and fixes
Y2K problem - articles on projection and potential impact of Y2K problem
Y2K problem - articles on public reaction
Y2K problem - BMR Software logos
Y2K problem - correspondence with Capers Jones
Y2K problem - government Y2K conference
Y2K problem - historical file
Y2K problem - North, Gary
Y2K problem - patent for method of solving millennium problems of some application
Y2K problem - public relations
Y2K problem - website articles and links
Y2K problem - website directory printouts