Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
In computing, a control character or non-printing character, is a code point (a number) in a character set that does not, in itself, represent a written symbol. All entries in the ASCII table below 32 are of this kind, including BEL (which is intended to cause an audible signal in the receiving terminal), SYN (which is a synchronization signal), and ENQ (a signal that is intended to trigger a response at the receiving end, to see if it is still present). The Unicode standard has added many new non-printing characters, for example the Zero-Width Non-Joiner.
The control characters in ASCII still in common use include
- 7 (bell), which may cause the device receiving it to emit a warning of some kind
- 8 (backspace), used either to erase the last character printed or to overprint it
- 9 (horizontal tab)
- 10 (line feed), used to end lines in most UNIX systems and variants
- 12 (form feed), to cause a printer to eject a page
- 13 (carriage return), used to end lines of text on Mac OS and CP/M derivatives including DOS), and
- 27 (escape).
Code 27 (Escape) is a case worth elaborating. Even though many of these control characters are never used, the concept of sending device-control information intermixed with printable characters is so useful that device makers found a way to send hundreds of device instructions. Specifically, they used a series of multiple characters called a "control sequence " or "escape sequence". Typically code 27 was first sent to alert the device that the following characters were to be interpreted as a control sequence rather than as plain characters, then one or more characters would follow specifying some detailed action, after which the device would go back to interpreting characters normally. For example, the sequence of code 27, followed by the printable characters "[2;10H", would cause a Digital VT-102 terminal to move its cursor to the 10th cell of the 2nd line of the screen. Some standards exist for these sequences, notably ANSI X3.64 (1979), which was based on the behavior of VT-100 series terminals. But the number of non-standard variations in use is large, especially among printers, where technology has advanced far faster than any standards body can possibly follow.
How control characters map to keyboards
ASCII-based keyboards have a key labelled "Control" or "Ctrl" (sometimes referred to as "Cntl"), which is used much like a shift key, being depressed in combination with another letter or symbol key to cause the keyboard to generate one of these 32 control codes. The keyboard produces the code 64 places below the code for the uppercase letter pressed (basically, it clears bit 5 to zero). Pressing "control" and the letter "G" (code 71), for example, would produce the code 7 (Bell). Keyboards also have single keys that produce codes in this range. For example, the key labelled "Backspace" typically produces code 8, "Tab" code 9, "Enter" or "Return" code 13 (though some keyboards might produce code 10 for "Enter").
Modern keyboards have many keys that do not correspond to ASCII characters or control characters, for example cursor control arrows and word processing functions. These keyboards communicate these keys to the attached computer by one of three methods: appropriating some otherwise unused control character for the new use, using some encoding other than ASCII, or using multi-character control sequences. Keyboards attached to stand-alone personal computers typically use one (or both) of the first two methods. "Dumb" computer terminals typically use control sequences.
The design purpose
The control characters were designed fall into a few groups: printing control, data structuring, transmission control, and miscellaneous.
Printing control characters tell where to put the next character. Carriage return says to put the character at the edge of the paper at which writing begins (it may or may not also move to the next line). Line feed indicates to put the next character at the next line in the direction new lines occur (and may or may not also move to the beginning of the line). Vertical and horizontal tab request the printer to move the print head to the next tab stop in the direction of reading. Form feed starts a new sheet of paper. Shift in and shift out were to select alternate character sets, fonts, underlining or other printing modes. Backspace moves the next position one character backwards, so the printer can overprint characters to make special characters.
The separators (group, record, etc) were made to structure data, usually on a tape, in order to simulate punch cards. End of media warns that the tape (or whatever) is ending.
The transmission control characters were intended to structure a data packet and control when to retransmit it if it has an error.
The start of header was to mark the non-data section of a data packet--the part of a message with addresses and other housekeeping data. The start-of-text marked the end of the header, and the start of the text. End-of-text marked the end of the data of a message. A standard convention is to make the two characters preceding the end of text the checksum or CRC of the message.
Escape was supposed to preface a binary value in a message that might otherwise be interpreted as a control character. For example, the value for binary 27 would be Escape Escape.
Substitute was intended to request a translation of the next character from a printable character to a binary value, usually by setting bit 5 to zero. This is handy because some transmission media (such as sheets of paper produced by typewriters) only transmit printable characters.
Cancel would stop a transmission of a packet. Negative acknowledge requests a retransmission of a packet. Acknowledge indicates that a transmission was received correctly.
When a transmission medium is half duplex (that is, it can only transmit in one direction at a time), there is usually a master station that can transmit at any time, and one or more slave stations that transmit when they have permission. Enquiry is used by a master station to ask a slave station to send its next message. A slave station indicates that it has completed its transmission by sending end of transmission.
The device control codes were originally generic, to be defined differently for each device. However, a universal need in data transmission is to request the sender to stop transmitting when a receiver can't take more data right now. Digital Equipment Corporation invented a convention which used 19, (device control 3, also known as control S, or "X-OFF") to "S"top transmission, and 17, (device control 1, AKA control Q, or "X-ON") to start transmission. This lets manufacturers control the transmission without "transmission control" wires in the data cable. This saves money and makes operation more reliable by reducing the number of connections in a cable.
Data link escape tells the other end of the data link to end a session.
Many of the ASCII control characters were designed for devices of the time that are not often seen today. For example, code 22, "Synchronous idle", was originally sent by synchronous modems (which have to send data constantly) when there was no actual data to send. (Modern systems typically use a start bit to announce the beginning of a transmitted word.)
Code 0, null, is a special case. In paper tape, it is the case when there are no holes. It's convenient to treat this as a non-existent character.
Code 127 is likewise a special case. Its code is all-bits-on in binary, which made it easy to erase a section of paper tape, a common storage medium of the day, by punching all the holes. Paper tape became obsolete quickly, so this feature was almost never used.
But because its code is in the range occupied by other printable characters, many computers used it as an additional printable character (often an all-black "box" character useful for erasing text by overprinting).
Seven-bit ASCII defines 33 codes, 0 through 31 and 127, as control characters.
|^A||01||0x01||SOH||Start of Heading|
|^B||02||0x02||STX||Start of Text|
|^C||03||0x03||ETX||End of Text|
|^D||04||0x04||EOT||End of Transmission|
|^P||16||0x10||DLE||Data Link Escape|
|^Q||17||0x11||DC1||Device Control 1|
|^R||18||0x12||DC2||Device Control 2|
|^S||19||0x13||DC3||Device Control 3|
|^T||20||0x14||DC4||Device Control 4|
|^W||23||0x17||ETB||End of Transmission Block|
|^Y||25||0x19||EM||End of Medium|
|129||0x81||HOP||High Octet Preset|
|130||0x82||BPH||Break Permitted Here|
|131||0x83||NBH||No Break Here|
|134||0x86||SSA||Start of Selected Area|
|135||0x87||ESA||End of Selected Area|
|136||0x88||HTS||Horizontal Tab Set|
|137||0x89||HTJ||Horizontal Tab Justified|
|138||0x8A||VTS||Vertical Tab Set|
|139||0x8B||PLD||Partial Line Forward|
|140||0x8C||PLU||Partial Line Backward|
|141||0x8D||RI||Reverse Line Feed|
|144||0x90||DCS||Device Control String|
|145||0x91||PU1||Private Use 1|
|146||0x92||PU2||Private Use 2|
|147||0x93||STS||Set Transmit State|
|150||0x96||SPA||Start of Protected Area|
|151||0x97||EPA||End of Protected Area|
|152||0x98||SOS||Start of String|
|153||0x99||SGCI||Single Graphic Char Intro|
|154||0x9A||SCI||Single Char Intro|
|155||0x9B||CSI||Control Sequence Intro|
|159||0x9F||APC||App Program Command|
- ISO/IEC 6429 Information technology -- Control functions for coded character sets
- Standard ECMA-48: Control Functions for Coded Character Sets 5th edition (June 1991)
- Control functions for coded character sets
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