Programmer saw Y2K bug coming

Prophet: At age 79, the man who contributed the `Escape' key and other innovations to the computer world works to solve a problem he warned of three decades ago.

Sun Profile

April 25, 1999|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

When historians someday dissect the long chain of missteps that allowed the year 2000 computer bug to flourish, they will undoubtedly linger over the tale of a little-known programmer named Bob Bemer.

For decades, Bemer has been an unheard prophet, warning anybody who would listen that using two-digit dates in computers was a prescription for trouble.

Thirty years ago he lobbied government agencies to require four digits. He was snubbed. Twenty years ago, he published articles predicting that software polluted with shortened dates would haunt society at century's end. Programmers did it anyway.

Had anyone listened, Bemer figures we could have averted one of the most costly and bizarre screw-ups of the century. He's not always charitable toward those who lack his vision. "Idiots," Bemer grumbles.

The Y2K cleanup effort has already cost billions of dollars and generated a worldwide epidemic of nail biting. The fear: Come Jan. 1, 2000, the computers that oversee nuclear power plants, water reservoirs, elevators and the rest of our lives will encounter the year "00" and seize up, not knowing whether it's 1900 or 2000.

Bemer is 79 now, a slightly stooped great-grandfather with a bum heart and Howdy Doody grin who started programming when Harry S. Truman was president. He's still at it. When he found out a few years ago that his fears might come to pass, he emerged from retirement and developed a radical software fix for the millennium bug. Now the successors to the bureaucrats who once ignored him are trooping to Bemer for help.

"I didn't start the Y2K problem, but I'm going to try to finish it," he says.

Twice a week Bemer rises at 5 a.m., pulls a homemade string tie over an Oxford shirt, and climbs into a Ford Expedition for a grueling 120-mile commute past mesquite-stubbled cattle ranches to his small Dallas software company.

It's not how he imagined he'd be spending his time these days. Many of his friends are retired or gone. "He's dead, he's dead, he's dead," Bemer says one day as he cleans out his computerized address file. Even his oldest son retired last year.

But whenever his wife entreats him to slow down, Bemer is firm. If Y2K were to affect his family, it would be too awful to contemplate: "I would feel guilty if I didn't do something."

Those who know him aren't surprised. "He's not like normal people," says friend E. W. "Ted" Hughes, a retired attorney who helped Bemer patent his software. "He's eccentric -- but bright as hell."

Scattered around Bemer's house is evidence of his quirky genius. There's his obsession with lists, page after page detailing every country he's ever visited, every flight he's ever taken (complete with latitude and longitude of the destination and total miles), and the date of every visit to his parents.

There's his bedside collection of 40-year-old Pogo Possum comic books -- "My hero," he says with a smile -- whose nuggets of wisdom he likes to quote.

His favorite Pogoism: "The depths of human stupidity are as yet unplumbed."

There are his scrapbooks overflowing with yellowed newspaper clips and fading interoffice memos, documenting a half-century at computer giants such as IBM, GE, Univac, and Honeywell.

Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., Bemer worked as a machinist, furniture maker and movie set designer before he signed on with the Rand Corp. in 1949.

He was 29 years old the day he first touched a hulking, cast-iron computer. As he did, he recalls thinking: "I never want to do anything else."

Over the years, he became a star. The International Biographical Dictionary of Computer Pioneers dubs him a "programmer extraordinaire" and ticks off his contributions: the COBOL computer language that still runs many major businesses, the "Escape" key found on almost every computer, and the landmark American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII).

"Without ASCII, you wouldn't have the Internet, you wouldn't have e-mail, you wouldn't have anything," notes computer historian Jean Sammet.

Bemer is proud of these accomplishments -- he has emblazoned "COBOL" and "ASCII" on vanity license plates for his three cars. But his thoughts often return to the one that got away.

It was the Mormons, of all people, who first put him onto the Y2K bug. In the 1950s, when he was a hotshot young programmer at IBM, Bemer was ordered to help the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints computerize its vast collection of genealogical records. Computer memory cost big bucks then, so programmers trimmed fat from their data wherever they could. One popular spot was dates. If they lopped off the "19" from 1957, they'd have two more places to stick data.

But Bemer quickly realized the shortcut wouldn't work with the Mormon records because they stretched back centuries. If he didn't use all four digits, how could the computer tell the difference between someone born in 1957 and, say, 1757?

"It was the moment of awareness to me," he says. "I realized that using two-digit years wasn't going to hold up."

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