116 Engineering Ethics: An Industrial Perspective
AN ENGINEERING PERSPECTIVE
Computer scientist Bob Bemer provided the first published warning
about the millennium bug in a 1971 editorial for the Honeywell Computer
Journal (Bemer, 1971). Known as the “father of ASCII,” Bemer created
ASCII in 1961 by assigning standard numeric values to letters, numbers,
punctuation marks, and other characters. He also assisted Grace Hopper
in creating the computer language Common Business Oriented Language
(COBOL). In 2003 the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers’
Computer Society awarded him its Computer Pioneer medal.
Bemer’s warnings were based on work he had conducted in the 1950s
on genealogic records for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,
when he realized that truncating a year’s date was not worth the computer
space saved. But Pentagon bureaucrats, among the largest computer users
on Earth, refused to accept that 1999 was a better code than 99. The
National Bureau of Standards agreed with the Pentagon, although it said
programmers could voluntarily use four instead of two numbers.
Bemer began warning the public in 1971 (Sullivan, 2004). According to
Dr. Fred Brooks, IBM’s project manager for the IBM 360, the cost of using
four-digit years decreased gradually as the wisdom of using them
increased, with both lines crossing around 1970 (Weingarten, 1999). Bemer
continued these warnings until he retired in 1982, even though the public
reacted with derision (Sullivan, 2004).
Bemer, R.W., What’s the date? Honeywell Computer J, 1971, 5, 205–208.
Lohr, S., With a whole lot at stake, I.B.M. and Microsoft await year 2000. NY Times, C1,
December 31, 1999.
Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, Investigating the Impact of the
Year 2000 Problem. February 24, 1999. http://www.senate.gov/~y2k/documents/report/.
Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, Investigating the Year
2000 Problem: The 100 Day Report. September 22, 1999. http://www.senate.gov/~y2k/
Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, Y2K Aftermath—Crisis
Averted Final Committee Report. February 29, 2000. http://www.senate.gov/~y2k/documents/
Sullivan, P., Obituaries: Computer Pioneer Bob Bemer, 84. Wash Post, B6, June 25, 2004.
United States Code (USC), 2005. http://www.straylight.law.cornell.edu/uscode.
United States Senate, U.S. Senate Creates New Committee, Bennett to Serve as Chairman.
April 3, 1998. http://www.senate.gov/~y2k/news/pr980403.htm.
Weingarten, G.,The millennium bug. Wash Post, F1, July 18, 1999.
Zeller, T., Jr., and Mayersohn, N. Can a virus hitch a ride in your car? NY Times, 8–12,
March 13, 2005.
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