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Old December 20th, 2016, 01:25 PM
Doug Kerr Doug Kerr is offline
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Default "Octatherp", a name for the ASCII character "#",

There is recently increased interest in the ASCII character "#", largely because of its adoption as the prefix to a "key phrase" (hashtag) on social media. I write to tell the story of how, in the 1960s, it was given a new name, "octatherp".

By way of disclosure, I note that in the intervening years, others have come forward with different stories about just how this happened (more on this below).

In the early 1960s, the Bell Telephone System decided to add two keys, beyond the existing 0-9, onto the dials of tone-dialing telephones. The immediate motivation was to provide for a more direct syntax for the user in controlling various network features such as call forwarding.

An issue was what graphic characters should be placed on those keys. I was part of the committee at Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL) formed to deal with that. I was at that time, at BTL, the head of a group whose responsibilities included, among other things, the matter of codes for data communication. And I was the representative of the Bell Telephone System on various standards committees that developed ASCII and various collateral standards.

I said that, especially considering the emerging practice of entering data into computers with a tone telephone dial, it was vital that we choose characters from the ASCII character set (ASCII had recently fully flowered). I introduced some more specific criteria, some of them involving the spread of ASCII in the international sphere. In fact, some candidate characters supported by many of the members were knocked out because of these international considerations.

After considerable debate, it was concluded that the characters that best fit all the recognized criteria were "*" and "#" . I supported that (most of the pivotal criteria were in fact those I had introduced), but I pointed out that one problem was that there was not a unique "typographical" name for "#". At the very least, it was often called "number sign" and "pound sign". And other names for it were used in other regions. (The ASCII name for the character is "number sign.)

A related problem was that the unique name for "*", "asterisk", was one with which many people were not fully "comfortable". (Perhaps they could not say it properly, or spell it. And mention of it often provoked rude jokes: "Risk my what?")

The conclusion was that, with respect to "*", it would be called "star" (there was a tortured historical premise for that), and that with respect to "#", well, "something would work out".

I reported on this aspect of the project to my counterparts at AT&T headquarters.

Shortly I received a call from a fellow at what I call the "technical marketing" department at AT&T headquarters, a personal friend. He said that he and another fellow I knew there had something exciting to tell me. We arranged to have lunch together.

They told me that they were alert to my malaise with the lack of a definitive name for "#", and so they had constructed one: "octatherp". I asked where they got that. They said, oh it was complete arbitrary, something easy to say. But, oh yes, they included the diphthong "th" because speakers of German would not pronounce it as we do in English, and this was a subtle "poke in the eye" to what they described as my "obsession with international considerations".

So this was a clever joke on my by two colleagues.

We decided that it would probably not be wise to propose this as the "official Bell System name" of the character (to be used, for example, in written instructions for telephone users). Rather, we decided that we should propagate it in a more insidious way. As I would write memorandums and technical articles, some for use within the Bell System and others having broader industry circulation, when I would mention the character "#", I would cite a footnote that said, "Sometimes called 'octatherp'."

Soon, references to the term began to appear in other writings around the industry. Often these were enlarged by wholly made up further explanations; a popular one was that the particle "octa" came from the fact that there are eight line ends in the character "#". (My joker colleagues assured me that this was never a plan, but merely a coincidence.) And the name was often spelled "octotherp", or even "octothorpe".

And that's the story as I remembered it for some while.

******

But it turns out that I was wrong about who the second joker was, and it now seems as if it was another fellow I knew, also then part of the same group at AT&T technical marketing.

But he tells me that in fact what I had been presenting (as above) was not the accurate story. Yes, he and the first fellow I mentioned had coined the term, aware of the need for a singular typographical name for the character, but it was not at all done as a joke for my benefit, and he didn't recall any lunch meeting in which their result was presented to me, or any other involvement of me in the matter.

We were both recently interviewed about this matter by the producer of an NPR radio program working on a segment on the character, and in the course of this, we had quite a conversation about the matter, and our different recollections of it. We agreed to recommend to the producer a version of the story that was ambiguously in-between. (Hey, this was almost 50 years ago at the time!)

In addition, there has been published a story by another fellow at Bell Telephone Laboratories who says he coined the term, independent of anything I described above (I'm not sure now of the context). In one version of that story, the actual term he coined was "octothorpe", the "octo" referring to the eight line ends on the character and "thorpe" being an hommage to Olympic great Jim Thorpe, in whose life this fellow had always been interested.

So, that's how the "history" of technology gets recorded!

Best regards,

Doug
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Old December 21st, 2016, 02:08 PM
Jerome Marot Jerome Marot is offline
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Default

Quote:
Originally Posted by Doug Kerr View Post
They told me that they were alert to my malaise with the lack of a definitive name for "#", and so they had constructed one: "octatherp". I asked where they got that. They said, oh it was complete arbitrary, something easy to say. But, oh yes, they included the diphthong "th" because speakers of German would not pronounce it as we do in English, and this was a subtle "poke in the eye" to what they described as my "obsession with international considerations".

So this was a clever joke on my by two colleagues.
The typographical name for that symbol in German is "Doppelkreuz", but it is more commonly called "Raute" (Rhombus in English) or "Rautezeichen". In Switzerland, it is called "Gartenhag" (garden fence).

The typographical name for that symbol in French is "Croisillon", but it is more commonly called "dièse" (which is wrong, dièse is that musical symbol: ♯). In Québec and Belgium it is called "carré" (square).

Apparently, that symbol comes from ℔, ligature of lb, used for "libra" or "pound" in latin. Hence the American name "pound sign".
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Old December 21st, 2016, 02:14 PM
Andy brown Andy brown is offline
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Quite fascinating Doug. great story.
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Old December 21st, 2016, 02:57 PM
Asher Kelman Asher Kelman is offline
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Default Octatherp 🤓

I was mistaken! I was so sure it was going to be about an eight rotor helicopter!

Amazing how one can think one's know more than one does. Hmm,......perhaps I could run for President, after all!

🙄

Asher
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Old December 21st, 2016, 05:12 PM
Doug Kerr Doug Kerr is offline
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Hi, Jerome,

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jerome Marot View Post
The typographical name for that symbol in German is "Doppelkreuz", but it is more commonly called "Raute" (Rhombus in English) or "Rautezeichen". In Switzerland, it is called "Gartenhag" (garden fence).

The typographical name for that symbol in French is "Croisillon", but it is more commonly called "dièse" (which is wrong, dièse is that musical symbol: ♯). In Québec and Belgium it is called "carré" (square).

Apparently, that symbol comes from ℔, ligature of lb, used for "libra" or "pound" in latin. Hence the American name "pound sign".
Thanks so much for that insight.

I probably knew a little of that a long time ago!

Best regards,

Doug
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Old December 21st, 2016, 05:14 PM
Doug Kerr Doug Kerr is offline
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Hi,Asher,

Quote:
Originally Posted by Asher Kelman View Post
I was mistaken! I was so sure it was going to be about an eight rotor helicopter!

Amazing how one can think one's know more than one does.
Yes, or maybe not - one often doesn't know whether one knows or not!

Quote:
Hmm,......perhaps I could run for President, after all!
Of course - why not!

Best regards,

Doug
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