Here’s a nice little history of character encodings, from ASCII through UTF-8.
It doesn’t really “date back to the earliest days of computers”; before ASCII there was a jumble of incompatible character encodings, some using as few as 5 bits. Even afterward, a bizarre IBM encoding called EBCDIC hung on for many years. But the path from ASCII to its descendants is fascinating enough by itself.
Thanks to Andy Jackson for the link.