Interview - Bob Bemer

Interview: Bob Bemer, Computer Pioneer: 18th August 2003

In keeping with Media Man Australia's tradition of tackling any subject, we explore the world of the Internet, and a key man who invented many of the technologies we now take for granted.

What's your background?

Raised in Michigan, standard schools where my father was the superintendent, one year post-graduate at a fine prep school, and a 4-year B.A. in mathematics. At which point World War II came along and ended that path. From aerodynamicist I became a movie set designer, built custom furniture for movie stars, and found computers in 1949. Not quite like a religious conversion, but close.

What are you most well known for?

As the "Father of ASCII', which, as a few people know, is the internal computer code for representing alphabetic letters and punctuation. This is what makes the "Worldwide" possible in "Worldwide Web". It is the computerized replacement for what our fathers knew as the "Morse Code" of the telegraph.

I understand that there is a statue of Samuel Morse in Central Park of New York City, but nobody has been asking yet for my measurements.

What exactly is COBOL?

A language, using English words, with which the dumbest person can become a computer programmer, even though light on the other side may be seen by looking through one of their ears. It does not make them any smarter, only persuade them that they are.

The name is of my coinage, standing for CO mmon B usiness- O riented L anguage, and it is true, as I contended from the start, that business processes are more difficult to program than scientific processes. Mostly because the laws of nature are harder to change than the laws people make.

How do you describe yourself?

Typical old man, unafraid of death because how can it be any worse than the way the world is going? I'm tired of getting hammered that sodomy is good and smoking is bad, because that demeans my ancestors, who eschewed the first, and actually went so far as to sell cigars in the Netherlands.

What are the main advantages of the Internet?

I always describe it, with the Worldwide Web, as the world's biggest library and postoffice. Finally, a reasonable sufficiency of knowledge (right or wrong) is available like turning on a light switch.

What are the best opportunities on the Internet, to make good, clean money?

You ruined it when you said "clean". Even Stephen King could not sell a book there, rather than hard copy. People get so much free there that they are ill-disposed to pay money for content. But if there is a way, and I know it, do you think that I would divulge it? It costs me money to live, too, and few 83-year-olds are employed by others. Just their prejudice, of course.

What are the main dangers of the Internet? eg fraud, virus, child porn online etc etc

To these I'd have to add incorrect data or history, because there is no mandatory validating mechanism or agency, like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. There is little motivation to correct or update, and one certainly cannot depend upon any site to not disappear without notification. Which is why the latest craze -- to run your business with the Web as the program source -- will fail.

What are the highlights of your career?

Most of this you can get from my website by clicking on my CV. It's a bit big to relist. But I can say that I'm proudest of contributing parts of the Web, like the internal PC code ASCII, escape sequences that enable cursor movement, color, changing to most alphabets of the world, driving laser printers, and (very importantly, after one points and clicks) the mechanism to bring a different page to the screen without having its address showing, to clutter up what you're reading.

And add the Picture Clause of COBOL, the first language that enabled people to describe data in general.

What kind of assignment have you had to be tight lipped on?

Not really any, although I had some pretty high clearances while working for the RAND Corporation.

What's some good examples of the media getting it very wrong, in relation to reporting on you and your projects? - care to comment?

I got laughed at early on for saying the computer world would be driven by everyday people, not arrogant computer programmers. It's not so bad lately, and you can guess why.

What kind of boss are you?

Straight-laced, demanding of best performance, show employees that I can do their job too (not just a manager). And when someone was proven crooked or subversive, firing them on the spot. And I believe in pay for capability and applying it, seventeen children or not, else find another field of work.

What is your management style?

Praise in public, damn in private. Give every opportunity to do a more important job. My lifelong motto, coined by me, is "do something, small, useful, now", and that can be read in one or more chunks, from the left.

What are your favourite websites?

Worldnet Daily, and of course Google.

What news companies do you trust?

Virtually none. I am a steadfast member of the National Rifle Association, and therefore philosophically at odds with Canada, Australia, and England -- which I much regret. I can see no reduction in crime from punishing the victim and letting the criminal go free.

What motivates you?

Overcoming human stupidities and prejudice. Making work easier, to leave more time for thinking, by those that have the sense to take advantage of it. I'm greatly in favor of standards, for easier interworking among people, and for their safety and well-being. I always remember the New York Times story about an ocean liner burning to the waterline because the New York Harbor fireboats were not equipped with
"the so-called international standard hose fittings".

What projects have you worked on in Australia?

My projects have all been entirely general, applicable in, and (I believe) valuable to, every country.

What do you do to relax?

Puzzles, escape fiction (especially Tolkien).

How would you like to be remembered as?

As caring as much about children as my father, a school superintendent, did


Editors note: A straight up guy, in an interesting, entertaining interview. Ok, he's a genius, I know. Media Man Australia continues to interview the best talent around the globe. If I can't make a million buck out of the media and Internet business, no one can..ok, an exaggerating, but you get the point. PS: Media Man Australia is well on the way to securing a $12,000 government grant. Genius is mysterious!


Bob Bemer official website