ASCII Debuts – Archived Post

The original source for this post is gone/ broken. I could not find the post elsewhere. Keeping as an archive here so the information is not lost.

1963: ASCII Debuts – By Mary Brandel – 04/12/99

If it weren’t for a particular development in 1963, we wouldn’t have e-mail and there would be no World Wide Web. Cursor movement, laser printers and video games — all of these owe a big debt of gratitude to this technological breakthrough.

What is it? Something most of us take for granted today: ASCII. Yep, plain old ASCII, that simplest of text formats.

To understand why ASCII (pronounced AS-KEE) is such a big deal, you have to realize that before it, different computers had no way to communicate with one another. Each manufacturer had its own way of representing letters in the alphabet, numbers and control codes. “We had over 60 different ways to represent characters in computers. It was a real Tower of Babel,” says Bob Bemer, who was instrumental in ASCII’s development and is widely known as “the father of ASCII.”

ASCII, which stands for American Standard Code for Information Interchange, functions as a common denominator between computers that otherwise have nothing in common. It works by assigning standard numeric values to letters, numbers, punctuation marks and other characters such as control codes. An uppercase “A,” for example, is represented by the number 65.

All the characters used in e-mail messages are ASCII characters, as are the characters in HTML documents.

But in 1960, there was no such standardization. IBM’s equipment alone used nine different character sets. “They were starting to talk about families of computers, which need to communicate. I said, ‘Hey, you can’t even talk to each other, let alone the outside world,'” says Bemer, who worked at IBM from 1956 to 1962.

Midway through Bemer’s IBM career, this heterogeneity became a real concern. So in May 1961, Bemer submitted a proposal for a common computer code to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The X3.4 Committee — representing most computer manufacturers of the day and chaired by John Auwaerter, vice president of the former Teletype Corp. — was established and got right to work.

It took the ANSI committee more than two years to agree on a common code. Part of the lengthy debate was caused by self-interest. The committee had to decide whose proprietary characters were represented. “It got down to nitpicking,” Bemer says. “But finally, Auwaerter and I shook hands outside of the meeting room and said, ‘This is it.'” Ironically, the end result bore a strong resemblance to Bemer’s original plan.

If you were to jump ahead to this year, you’d think it was smooth sailing after that. Today, ASCII is used in billions of dollars’ worth of computer equipment as well as most operating systems — the exception being Windows NT, which uses the newer Unicode standard, which is only somewhat compatible with ASCII.

However, there was an 18-year gap between the completion of ASCII in 1963 and its common acceptance. This has everything to do with IBM and its System/360, which was released in 1964. While ASCII was being developed, everyone — even IBM — assumed the company would move to the new standard. Until then, IBM used EBCDIC, an extension of the old punch-card code.

But just as ASCII became a done deal and the System/360 was ready for release, Dr. Frederick Brooks, head of IBM’s OS/360 development team, told Bemer the punch cards and printers wouldn’t be ready for ASCII on time. IBM tried to develop a way for the System/360 to switch between ASCII and EBCDIC, but the technique didn’t work.

Until 1981, when IBM finally used ASCII in its first PC, the only ASCII computer was the Univac 1050, released in 1964 (although Teletype immediately made all of its new typewriter-like machines work in ASCII). But from that point on, ASCII became the standard for computer communication.

The story of ASCII wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the “escape” sequence. According to Bemer, it’s the most important piece of the ASCII puzzle. Early in the game, ANSI recognized that 128 characters were insufficient to accommodate a worldwide communication system. But the seven-bit limitation of the hardware at the time forbade them to go beyond that.

So Bemer developed the escape sequence, which allows the computer to break from one alphabet and enter another. Since 1963, more than 150 “extra-ASCII” alphabets have been defined.

Along with Cobol, ASCII is one of the few basic computer technologies from the 1960s that still thrives today.

Original Source (link is broken): AgentIT

Preserving History: ASCII Ribbon Campaign Homepage

I have noticed a disturbing trend in software of late, a trend exemplified in the Web. This is the tendency to decide that if you have enough cool looking graphics, you don’t have to have any real content. This trend, on the web at least, has resulted a glut of graphics heavy, worthless pages, that take a million years to download and once you have them, you wish you hadn’t wasted the time, and don’t even get me started on PC games!
This is the ASCII ribbon campaign against gratuitous graphics on the internet! If you are interested in joining the crusade, put the following messsage on you page (or something like it, you get the idea):
– – – –
This page supports the ASCII ribbon campaign!
As a protest to the current trend towards all flash and no substance in modern software, this page will remain graphics free and concentrate only on content. Thank you.
– – – –
Since we don’t have a lot of graphics, and I can’t get a ribbon made out of text charicters to appear right on the page, this will have to do. Suggestions that we make a jpeg file of a ribbon made from ascii charicters were given the silent distain they deserved.
We ask that anyone supporting the campaign place minimal graphics, or none at all. however, I must reinforce that useful, intelligent use of graphics are okay, and are actually really cool. So, support the campaign, my fridends! We will prevail yet!
It has come to the attention of the campaign that imbedded sound files and frames can seriosusly slow page load times. These things, less common when the campaign was started, are slowly becoming mre prevalent. While the campaign is not against them just yet, it does preach serious caution when implementing these features. Pass the word!

Michael Sneeringer’s Movie Commentary
Mr. Quiet’s Library of Cool

via ASCII Ribbon Campaign Homepage.
This is not the original campaign but when I found the old link I thought it should be preserved too.

From the Original Respect ASCII Artists Campaign Page

From the Original Respect ASCII Artists Campaign Page

Plain text version (below) for those who can’t see small print very well, like myself. The above screenshot comes from what’s left of the site on the Wayback Machine with the Internet Archive.

What is the “Respect ASCII Artists Campaign”? Well, it’s something that I decided to do not long after a few things happened that I didn’t agree with. When an ascii artist draws any art, that art is rightfully theirs. No other person has a right to claim the art. Most ascii artists will tag their art in some for or another. Such as…
Link With This Ribbon
Yeah! I got the SnowGlobe back up! LoL This SnowGlobe for instance, was made by Joan Stark. Her tag is the jgs. This is how people know that the ascii was drawn by her. When an artist colors it, for example how I colored it. The tag must always stay with that ascii art. Even if hidden within the color, the art is still tagged and people will know what artist drew it.
Not only does the respect go towards the ascii art. We can go a bit further with their popup files. Anything really, not belonging to you should not be changed without prior consent of that particular artist or creator. It’s just common sense and respect towards others.
Many people get confused about copyright laws and what they mean, I’ve included a few links below to let you know exactly what they are. They are important not only to the ASCII artists, but to any artist who creates. Such as…an artist who creates graphics for you to use on your websites. Give all artists the respect of a simple link back to their pages. All it takes is one or two lines of code. That’s all. Just like the tag on any ASCII art, link back to a graphic artist as well. They will thank you for it. If you don’t know who the graphic or ascii was made by….then kindly state that somewhere in the ascii art or on the website. If that artist sees it, they will be able to let you know. But in the mean time, just make sure that you give due credit.

Internet copyright Information
Intellectual Property Law Primer

Now… Hopefully, I have explain myself well enough for you to understand what point I am trying to make. It’s just important to give credit where the credit is due…just do the right thing. If you wish to support this cause, please download the ribbon to your own server and upload it with a link back to this page. Let’s let others know what this is all about. Thanks, and feel free to email me if you wish and I’ll put you on the list of supporters. Let’s do if for the artists as well as ourselves. We owe that to them.