Regarding The History of Ethiopic Computing by Fesseha Atlaw (Op-Ed)

In the following OP-Ed Ethiopian-American engineer Fesseha Atlaw responds to readers questions and highlights some important points regarding the history of Ethiopic computing. (Courtesy Photo: Fesseha Atlaw hosting the first Ethiopic software workshop at the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa in the mid 1980s.)

Tadias Magazine

By Fesseha Atlaw

February 19th, 2019

The History of Ethiopic Computing: The process of Development; The Key Players; The Patent Process

Santa Rosa, California (TADIAS) — Many individuals have contacted me after the Tadias article on the genesis of Ethiopic computing have been published in 2018.

http://www.tadias.com/04/06/2018/how-ethiopic-script-was-introduced-to-modern-computers-interview-with-fesseha-atlaw/

The majority of the e-mails I received were congratulatory and “Thank you” and some even referred to me as “our hero”. Just to note a few , :

I was a member of the delegation that visited you at Stanford way back in 1987(?) and the follow up of your demonstration at Hilton Hotel in Addis Abeba. So many claimant innovators have popped up since then claiming discovery of an update Geez Script for Computer. As far as I remember I think you are one of the earliest pioneers to introduce the Ethiopian/ethiopic script …. “

Another heart warming e-mail I received from a totally blind reader in Ethiopia who was able to use the Unicode supported technology that allowed him for the computer to read the Amharic text and also allowed him to dictate to the computer to write in Amharic… He said :

ለታዲያስ መጽሄት የሰጠኸውን ስለEthiopic software የተመለከተ ቃለምልልስ አንብቤ በጣም ደስ አለኝ። በተለይ ኢትዮጵያውያን እንደ አንተ ያሉ ታሪካችን እና ባህላችን በቋንቋችን ተጽፎ በDigital ዘመን ተመዝግቦ እንዲቀመጥ ያስቻሉ ለአስርት አመታት የታገሉ ሰዎች መኖራቸውን ሳውቅ እድለኞች ነን አልኩ።እኔ ማየት የተሳነኝ ኢትዮጵያዊ ስለሆንኩ በአማርኛ እየጻፍኩ ኮምፒውተሩ በአማርኛ እያነበበልኝ፤ ስልኬ በአማርኛ ማን እንደደወለ እየነገረኝ ወዘተርፈ የቴክኖሎጂው ትሩፋት ዋነኛ ተጠቃሚ ሆኛለሁ።

I am thankful and humbled by these kinds of words and generous comments. However, I still feel there is a need to clarify and to accurately chronicle the history of digitization of Ethiopic computing. Unfortunately other news media (print and video) have a tendency to exaggerate and write about some technical matter without careful investigation. There were some who seem to be confused about the actual history and as to what exactly was done and who were the players. Some have asked me, if I had secured a “PATENT” or “Copyright”.

Here are some of the questions I received and my reply:

What was the process of developing “Ethiopic/Amharic” software in the 1980’s?

In the 1980’s I was working as an engineer for Hewlett-Packard, the largest technology company to this day. We didn’t have graphical User interface like WINDOWS or a mouse. The main use of computers at that time was to do word processing. (Writing a letter, a report or books etc) The operating system was called DOS (Disk operating system) programs come on a floppy disk and loaded onto a computer thru a disk drive.

The technical process of developing Ethiopic font-sets to work with computers is not as difficult as one thinks. Many talk about “inventions” or “discovery” etc … I have always discouraged people from referring the accomplishment and the development process as “Invention”. Unfortunately many in the general public don’t understand the detail process and see it that way. This has been made worse by some mass media hype and exaggeration and some claimant using the term “invention.” I also understand what digitizing Ethiopic meant for our language and the preservation of our collective heritage. I am proud of the fact I had any part in pioneering and contributing to such a project that will impact the Ethiopian society for generations.

To describe the process in brief, what we have done is to design Ethiopic fonts and insert them in computer programs as one of the fonts. Of course in the 1980’s that was not an easy task because the accessibility of computer programs, upload and download processes were very limited. (It was called load a program—- There was hardly any internet connection— no e-mails; no social media)

The biggest challenge was designing fonts for the limited character space (8X8) of computers at that time. All English alphabets can fit on a 8 by 8 grid, but the limited space was not suited for some Ethiopic characters. So, for example, fitting wide alphabets like ጬ was difficult.

Another challenge was the number of Ethiopic characters. At that time Latin alphabet (English and others) enjoyed the luxury of having only 26 characters —while Ethiopian alphabet was about 270). The manual Amharic type shown in the picture made up almost the entire alphabet using vowel marks.

Fortunately I was involved in the Unicode Technical Symposium early enough where I was part of the discussion of expanding computer encoding system from Ascii to Unicode and changing the name of the script from “Amharic” to its original name as Ethiopic so as to represent all language groups in Ethiopia.

Unicode is an international encoding standard for use with different languages and scripts, by which each letter, digit, or symbol is assigned a unique numeric value that applies across different platforms and programs. Or Unicode is a digital code for computers that lets them show text in different languages. Unicode standards are promoted by the Unicode Consortium and based on ISO standards.

I worked with Joe Becker, the founder of the Unicode Technical Consortium, to provide the first Ethiopic Proposal to the consortium representing both Dashen Engineering and Hewlett Packard. The consortium participants were computer scientists from all major high tech companies like Google, Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Facebook etc as well as participants from governments like India, Malaysia, etc. Here is the membership list: http://www.unicode.org/consortium/members.html. In 2018 I was nominated to get the title of “LIFE TIME Unicode Member” I am grateful and proud to represent Ethiopian script being the only African member of the Unicode in its history.

If there is anything that took a lot of push and stamina, it was calling the script “ETHIOPIC” rather than Amharic. I am most proud of that more than any of my contributions and starting a process to add more non-Amharic fronts to the unicode such as ቐ (Tigrigna) ፤ ዸ (For Afaan Oromo), etc. As the Unicode consortium member and owner of Dashen Engineering I received recommendations from many non-Amharic users in Ethiopia and adding new characters.

So here is the Unicode encoding scheme permanently embedded in all computers (new or old):

Basic Latin Range: 0000–007F
Greek and Coptic Range: 0370–03FF
Katakana (Japanese) Range: 30A0–30FF
Ethiopic Range: 1200–137F

So “ሀ” is represented by 1200 and ሁ 1201 ሂ 1203 etc all the
way to :137C = ፼ (ETHIOPIC NUMBER TEN THOUSAND )
Reserved for about 384 characters for Ethiopian languages :
አማርኛ ፤ ትግርኛ ፤ አፋን ኦሮሞ ፤ ከፋ፤ ጋሞ Gamo-Gofa-Dawro Basketo
Gumuz have been included : New Characters that were not part
of the Amharic typing system (Amharic Type writer ) have been
added Examples of the new Characters are : ቐ ዸ ꬁ ꬖ ጜ ጛ)

Were there others who were working on digitizing Ethiopic at that time? If so who were the key players? What makes your unique and why is your name mentioned at the forefront? How about others? Did you patent the software?

The short answer is, YES there were many others who were working on “Amharic Word Processor” about the same time as me or later-on. I started my research around 1982 and had the first usable Amharic word processor in 1985 that has been released to the general public. But others were released to the market soon afterwards.

The Ethiopian Science and Technology commission, under the late commissioner Ato Abebe Muluneh, had been tasked with developing an Amharic word processor by the Mengistu government and and they had demonstrated a working model around 1989 shortly after my demonstration at Addis Abeba Hilton. Others who worked on Ethiopic/Amharic word processor and should be recognized include: Dr. Yitna Firdyiwoq (Virginia), Daniel Admassie (Ethiopia Science & Technology), the late Feqade Mesfin (Los Angeles), Abass Alemneh (Texas) and Yemane Russom (Texas).

There are many more names of developers that came later and who have contributed to the Ethiopic digitization, but the above names stand out as early researchers and each of them had complete usable products.

I am also aware there are people who claim being early pioneers and writing their own Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately the ever growing Ethiopia media grab such claimants and mislead the general public (much the same way as they have done with rampant stories and interviews of the Dr. Engineer ZeMichael did). I wish our media develops the culture of due diligence and doing their homework of what exactly happened and when and report it accordingly.

I like to focus on the many positive achievements of Ethiopians and some non-Ethiopian that are working hard developing applications for our script. I am impressed by many new and young Ethiopic Digital application developers who are doing amazing and creative work but shy away from the media limelight and
don’t even want their names to be mentioned.

Some ask “Do you have patent or copyright protection for your early work?

The original MLS Ethiopic Word Processor I (as a founder of Dashen Engineering) had developed has been Copyrighted since 1985. Software is not generally patentable as such. However some typing mechanisms/schemes are patentable. There are several individuals who hold “Amharic/Ethiopic” typing method or KEYBOARDING patents. While these are legitimate patents they are easily misunderstood on what they mean. I have helped few young people apply for Ethiopic Keyboarding Patents on new method of typing. In fact any new scheme of typing/Keyboarding can be submitted for a patent in the US quite easily. There is a free software tool available from Keyman and others that allows anyone to come up with new Ethiopic (Amharic, Afaan Oromo, etc) Keyboarding method and submit that to PATENT office. I know some people who developed a new Keyboarding method to meet a certain needs in less than a week and submitted it for patent. There are many people who still are working to come up with a new “keyboarding scheme for Amharic and other languages. The tools are available to allow any non-technical person to design a unique keyboarding method and can easily patent it. These tools are listed on ethiopicsoftware.org website. I like to emphasize that these patents should Not prevent from coming up with new application of Ethiopic.

The patents are given for a unique method of keyboarding (typing) for example using (“ha” or “H” or “h” to type “ሀ”). The Ethiopic Unicode assignment is FREE to anyone who wants to develop an app or use Ethiopic in anyway. In fact I have heard stories that new developers were being harassed and attempts were made to discourage them from using Ethiopic in new apps.

On the other hand those who design fonts can legitimately claim ownership of their artistic efforts in designing fonts and assign them to the Unicode. The two major font designers are Ato Abass Alemneh of EthioSystems (senamirmir.com) and Ato Solomon Hailu (ethiohahu.com) have done a great work in designing creative Ethiopic fonts.

Recently, you were quoted, in one Ethiopian magazine, as making a call to the Oromo Intellectuals to use Ethiopic/Geez . “ …..የኦሮሞ ምሁራን የግዕዝ ፊደላትን እንዲጠቀሙ ጥሪ አቀርባለሁ….” What is your opinion on the Afaan Oromo writing system using Latin?

Yes, the magazine in Ethiopia extracted some of the Tadias interview and reprinted it in Amharic. However I want to clarify some issues. I never gave an interview to this particular magazine. Most of what they printed was correct but there were lots of exaggerations and some factual errors. All in all what they wrote was mostly correct and reflects my views also.

Some people call the alphabet – Amharic. The correct term is Ethiopic or “Ethiopian Alphabet.” 30 years ago during my participation in the UNICODE committee, I helped push for the adoption of the name “ETHIOPIC” as a name to be recognized for all computer systems. The computer knows the alphabet as Ethiopic not as “Amarigna”. In doing so, it was important we include special characters that were left out in the old Amharic type writer (such as: for “ ቐ” Tigrigna and for “ዸ”Afaan Oromo). So using the term Ethiopic is correct in that the alphabet belongs to all Ethiopians. Because of the Unicode there are many new software applications are developed in Ethiopic (such as Google Translate; Web Translate; text to speech and speech to text applications, etc). We now have computer languages and Operation systems in Amharic and other languages that use Ethiopic characters.

In the 1970’s the concern of many Oromo intellectuals about the growth and development of Afaan Oromo with computer technology was legitimate. Selecting the use of an already existing Latin alphabet was an advantage. Yes, in the 70’s most of computing was done in the English language- using Latin alphabet. Now that is no longer the case— thanks to the Unicode organization, almost all world languages that have a well develop script system have been included in all computers. From technical point of view, using Ethiopic to write Afaan Oromo is much more efficient and will ensure the rich language and literature of the Oromo develop faster. I give this advice as a technical person and do not get involved in political reasons. It is my strong belief that the decision rests entirely on the Oromo speaking people and no one else.


Related:
How Ethiopic Script Was Introduced to Modern Computers: Interview with Fesseha Atlaw

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