I’m Conrad Johnston, the man behind the all new improved Museums Aotearoa website and I’ve got a guest spot on your esteemed blog. Now, I could spend the next 400 words talking about requirements analysis, agile development methodologies, Drupal CMS, or responsive web design. Which are some of the things involved with the build of the new site. Or, I could talk about something I feel certain a museums practitioner would be interested in: history.
More specifically the history of the display of macrons over vowels in computer systems. Such as in the word Ngāruawāhia, which, incidentally, is where I grew up.
Our story starts with the humble typewriter. Bringer of the steno-pool, and a not insignificant part of the plot of Thoroughly Modern Milly. But I digress. Typewriters begat the Teletype machine, which was a kind of automated typewriter that could bang out the contents of a computer file. The era is the 1960s and the big computer companies (think IBM) needed a way to codify the letters on the teletype as numbers in their computer systems. 32 = A, 33 = B, and so on.
The solution they came up with was a system they called ASCII, short for American Standard Code for Information Interchange. This was important, so that all the computers were singing from the same choir sheet, so to speak. Unfortunately for us, this system only encoded 128 characters. Back to the typewriter for a second, this set of characters matches closely what an manual typewriter can type.
The other pitfall of this system was that it was only useful for expressing the English language. The delightful linguistic sprinkles such as graves, acutes and macrons were impossible to represent using this system, and you can just kiss goodbye to Asian languages. However, the USA was the powerhouse of the world economy for the second half of the 20th century, and everyone else managed.
Not only did everyone else manage, but quicker than you can say “where is the standards committee?”, other encoding systems were implemented to extend the range of ASCII. With narcolepsy inducing names such as EBCDIC, CJK and UTF-8.
So let’s cut a long blog post short and say that the world is still in flux when it comes to character encoding of textual computer files. However, the new Museums Aotearoa website, and database are encoded using a system called UTF-8, and this encoding, along with a modern web browser, means that you, dear reader, should be able to see macrons where macrons should be.
So enjoy your all new, linguistically sophisticated, forum bearing, membership managing website.