The 8th bit

In the last post I wrote about the ASCII standard. This is a continuation of that post.


The original ASCII standard takes up 7 bites, but the basic unit in the computer is 8 bites or 1 byte. This was the cause of a big problem in computing, casting it’s shadow even on the modern times.

Missing characters #

The ASCII standard was perfect for the typical American user. But people from a non English speaking countries also wanted to store their texts. Unfortunately, the ASCII did not include all the characters they had in their alphabets.

Of course, everyone wanted to include the standard 128 character found in the ASCII table, but also some of their own characters. A lot of countries came up with the following scheme.

They would create a new 8 bits based table where the first 128 characters were taken from the ASCII table and the next 128 characters would be a list of characters from their country.

Some game developers and text based user interface developers also took this idea, but instead of meaningful characters they would fill the upper half of the table with elements suitable for designing interfaces such are blocks, triangles and circles.

The problem #

The above described system worked perfectly until people started sending emails. In particular, emails to a foreign countries.

The encoding — fancy name for character table — in one country was totally different from the encoding in the other country. And there was no known way how to translate from one character table to another.

For example, when a French scientist sent his paper written in French to a college working in Germany, all the French characters were lost and replaced with something that was taken from the German encoding.

The solution #

This situation was of course unacceptable and some new standards started to emerge. The most popular today is the Unicode standard, but I will leave that for another post.


Now read this


This is a continuation of the story about the Unicode standard. Read The ASCII table and The 8th bit if you haven’t already. Last time I finished with a horrible story of overlapping encoding standards, and a general confusion in the... Continue →