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Computer pioneer Bob Bemer dies

Bob Bemer helped invent the ASCII encoding system and warned of Y2K problems as early as the 1970s. He was 84.
Bob Bemer is shown in this undated family photo. "He was a coder until he couldn't code any more. He lived it and breathed it," his stepson said.Family Photo / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Bob Bemer, a computer pioneer who published warnings of the Y2K problem in the early 1970s and helped invent a widely used coding system, has died after a battle with cancer. He was 84.

Bemer died Tuesday at his home along Possum Kingdom Lake, about 120 miles west of Dallas, said his stepson, Glen Teeler.

Bemer played an major role in how the world’s computers operate. He helped invent the ASCII coding system that is used in computers to represent text, and also contributed the escape key and the backslash to the computer language.

Pronounced “As-kee,” the American Standard Code for Information Interchange is an encoding system used in nearly every computer. It allows computers, which can only interpret numbers, to see text as a series of numbers.

He first published warnings of the Y2K computer problem in 1971 and again in 1979, and made several media appearances to discuss the issue in the years leading up to the millennium.

As recently as a month ago, “He was on the computer every day,” Teeler said Wednesday. “He is a man who literally worked just about every day until he died. He felt at home sitting in front of a (computer) screen.”

Born Feb. 8, 1920, in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., Bemer began his programming career in 1949, working at companies including RAND Corp., IBM, and Honeywell.

It was his time with IBM during the 1950s and 1960s where he contributed to the development of ASCII.

On his Web site, he described himself as a “Computer software consultant, futurist and raconteur.”

“He never got the coding out of his system,” Teeler said. “He was a coder until he couldn’t code any more. He lived it and breathed it.”

A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday.