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  • Computer Industry Pioneer:Erwin Tomash (1921-2012)
  • Jeffrey R. Yost (bio)

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Computer industry pioneer and visionary cofounder (with his wife Adelle Tomash) of the Charles Babbage Foundation (CBF) and the Charles Babbage Institute (CBI), Erwin Tomash passed away on 10 December 2012. In the late 1940s, Tomash was an engineer at Engineering Research Associates (ERA), one of two firms that launched the US computer industry. He later founded and led Dataproducts Corporation, a Fortune 500 computer peripherals and core memory firm. Erwin and Adelle Tomash's insights and generosity in founding, supporting, and advising CBF and CBI have had a profound and continuing impact on the infrastructure for research and publication of scholarship on computer and software history.

Professional Career

Erwin Tomash was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on 17 November 1921, to immigrant Jewish parents roughly a year after they moved the family from Moldavia, where his father had been a dried goods merchant. In his youth, Tomash attended public school as well as Hebrew school and also worked in his family's small grocery store. He was a student at Mechanical Arts High School in St. Paul and particularly enjoyed mathematics, history, and politics. He went on to complete a bachelor's in electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota, graduating in the spring of 1943. In his junior year Tomash met his future wife Adelle, who was a freshman at the university. Erwin and Adelle became engaged around the time of his graduation and got married soon thereafter.1,2

With the US at war, Tomash applied and was accepted to the US Army's officer recruitment program, becoming a second lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps. Tomash served with great distinction during WorldWar II. He began in an Army Signal Corps Maintenance Unit, where he set up and serviced radar systems. Later he organized and managed an Army supply depot near Marseille, France, that supplied critical electronic components to battlefront locales. For the latter, Tomash was awarded a Bronze Star.3

After returning from the war, Tomash began graduate school at the University of Minnesota, but he left for an opportunity to join the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in late 1947. In 1948, disillusioned with military bureaucracy, he interviewed for and was hired as a junior electronics engineer at the ERA liaison office in Arlington, Virginia.1

ERA had been launched in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1946 by a group of engineers who had worked on code-breaking for the US Navy during the war. In addition to other naval contracts, this corporation designed and built one of the first stored-program digital computers in the US, the Atlas, later commercialized as the ERA 1101.4

Tomash's first ERA assignment was conducting research that contributed to a seminal computing book, High Speed Computing Devices (ERA, 1950). Following this, Tomash frequently consulted on computation problems at the newly formed National Security Agency. During this time, he also completed a master's in electrical engineering at the University of Maryland. Soon key figures at ERA's headquarters encouraged Tomash to move to St. Paul, which he did in 1950. Tomash's first task in St. Paul was to work on ERA's Atlas II digital computer project. Many Atlas II development team members, including Seymour Cray, went on to become central figures at Control Data Corporation, a Minneapolis computer firm formed by engineers and managers leaving Sperry-Univac in 1957.1 (ERA was acquired by Remington Rand in 1952. Remington Rand merged with Sperry Corporation in 1955 to form Sperry Rand, and its computer division was Sperry-Univac.)

Erwin Tomash viewed Remington Rand's 1952 acquisition of ERA with reservations, as did many at ERA. The changing environment at ERA in St. Paul, and Erwin and Adelle's frustration with harsh Twin Cities winters, led Tomash to seek out possibilities in Southern California. In 1953, the Tomash family moved to Los Angeles, and Tomash successfully ran the Remington Rand Electronic Computer Department sales office in Los Angeles.1

The 1955 merger with Sperry brought organizational upheaval to the combined firm. The uncertainty for how Sperry-Univac would be managed, coupled with...


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