When I was a boy, not so long ago, there was a thing called the cent sign.

It looked like this: ¢ It was the dollar sign's little brother, and lived on comic books covers and in newspaper advertisements and on pay phones and wherever anything was being sold for less than a buck. It was a popular punctuation symbol—no question mark, or dollar sign, certainly, but just behind the * in popularity, and I daresay well ahead of #, &, and the now Internet-hot @. It owned an unshifted spot on the typewriter keyboard, just to the right of the semicolon, and was part of every third grader's working knowledge. In the late 1990s, you don't see many cent signs. Why? Because hardly anything costs less than a dollar anymore? Actually, the demise of the cent sign has little to do with inflation, and everything to do with computers. And therein lies a tale. In the 1960s a disparate group of American computer manufacturers (basically, everyone but IBM) got together and agreed on an encoding standard that became known as ASCII ("ass-key"—The American Standard Code for Information Interchange). This standard simply assigned a number to each of the various symbols used in written communication (e.g., A-Z, a-z, 0-9, period, comma). A standard made it possible for a Fortran program written for a Univac machine to make sense to a programmer (and a Fortran compiler) on a Control Data computer. And for a Teletype terminal to work with a Digital computer, and so on. So-called text files, still in widespread use today, consist of sequences of these numbers (or codes) to represent letters, spaces, and end-of-lines. Text editors, for example, the Windows Notepad application, display ASCII codes as lines of text on your screen so that you can read and edit them. Similarly, an ASCII keyboard spits out the value 65 when you type a capital 'A,' 65 being the ASCII code for 'A.' The committee decided on a seven bit code; this allowed for twice as many characters as existing six bit standards, and permitted a parity bit on eight bit tape. So there were 128 slots to dole out, and given the various nontypographic computing agendas to attend to, it was inevitable that some common symbols, including several that had always been on typewriter keyboards, wouldn't make the cut. (The typewriter layout had certain obvious failings in computer applications, for example: overloading the digit 1 and lower case L, so it couldn't be blindly adopted.)

Three handy fractions were cut: ¼ ½ ¾. This makes sense, especially when you consider that the ASCII committee was composed of engineers. I'm sure they thought, in their engineer's way, "Why have ¼ but not 1/3? And if we have 1/3, then why not 1/5? Or 3/32?" Similarly, the committee apparently found $0.19 an acceptable, if somewhat obtuse, way of expressing the price of a Bic pen. At any rate, the popular and useful cent sign didn't make it. And so the cent sign was off keyboards, terminals, and printers. Not that many people noticed right away. The companies behind ASCII sold big, expensive computers that were used to run businesses, and few cared that there wasn't a cent sign character on one's new line printer. Heck, if your printer could handle lower-case letters, you were state of the art. But when personal computers began to appear in the late 1970s, the primary application driving their adoption was word processing. These new small computers used the ASCII standard—after all, that's what standards are for. By the millions, typewriter keyboards (with ¢) were traded in for Apple IIs and IBM PCs (without ¢). While it's true that the cent sign was ultimately made part of other larger encoding standards, and is possible to create at modern PCs with a little effort—the damage had been done. Without a cent key in front of them, writers of books, newspapers, magazines, and advertisements made do without. And over time, $0.19 began to look like the right way to say 19¢. In another few years the cent sign will look as alien as those strange S's our forefathers were using when they wrote the constitution.