[SIGCIS-Members] query: history of character codes, Unicode?

Paul N. Edwards pne at umich.edu
Thu Aug 20 08:00:35 PDT 2015

All, vaguely related to the interesting discussion of race - on which I tend to agree with Tom H - here’s something that’s been niggling away at my historical consciousness. 

In 1993 Jeffrey Shapard published an intriguing article about the problems created by early standardization on ASCII 7- and 8-bit character codes for Asian and other non-alphabetic languages, which can have many thousands of characters (vs. the 256 representable in 8-bit ASCII). Shapard, “Islands in the (Data) Stream: Language, Character Codes, and Electronic Isolation in Japan,” in Linda Harasim, ed., Global networks: Computers and international communication (MIT Press Cambridge, MA., 1993).

This problem carried over into the Web era. It was technically resolved by Unicode, but that standard has still not been universally adopted.

I’m wondering whether any historians have written about the history of character encoding, especially Unicode. What I’m curious about is not the technical history itself, but how the character-code problem affected/was affected by culture (“electronic isolation," as per Shapard? indigenous efforts, vs. IBM’s world-market goals? alternative pathways?). Do any of you know archive- or interview-based accounts that go into some of the cultural and social background and implications?

NB, there was a 3-part history of IBM's efforts in Asia, especially kanji representations, in the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Jan.-March 2005, by: Hensch, K.; Iqi, T.; Iwao, M.; Oda, A.; Takeshita. 

There are also number of rather thorough and interesting histories by developer-protagonists and users, such as these:

S. Searle, A Brief History of Character Codes in North America, Europe, and Asia <http://tronweb.super-nova.co.jp/characcodehist.html>

S. Searle, Unicode Revisited <http://tronweb.super-nova.co.jp/unicoderevisited.html>

J. Becker, Unicode 88 <http://www.unicode.org/history/unicode88.pdf> (1988 proposal from Xerox PARC)

Curious for any thoughts or references. 



Paul N. Edwards, Professor of Information <http://www.si.umich.edu/> and History <http://www.lsa.umich.edu/history/>
On sabbatical July-December 2015 — replies will be slow or nonexistent

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