With the passing of Erwin Tomash on December 10, 2012, the computer history world lost one of its oldest, strongest, and most foresighted supporters. As Jeffrey Yost makes clear in his biographical article, Erwin had a singularly lengthy and profound impact on our field. By my reckoning, he was involved in computing, one way or another, for an astounding seven decades: beginning with his 1943 graduation from the University of Minnesota in Electrical Engineering and his subsequent wartime work on radar, and continuing with numerous key roles including working for the pioneering Engineering Research Associates in St. Paul, through his executive activities at Dataproducts and other companies, and on to his founding of the Charles Babbage Institute, and his own active scholarly book collecting, just to mention the highlights.
It’s worth pausing a moment, I think, to reflect on the leap of faith that Erwin took in the 1970s to create a substantial and durable means to cultivate computer history. Apple Computer was still cleaning up its garage, and the IBM Personal Computer was nothing more than a fuzzy dream. “Silicon Valley,” named in 1971, was scarcely more than a half-dozen years old. Others were nearly as young. The latter-day web pioneer Marc Andreessen, future Google founder Sergei Brin, and recently named Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer—all were barely out of diapers. People often ask me whether Erwin and his colleagues who founded CBI could possibly have foreseen the full sweep and significance of the computer revolution.
Whether anyone really could see the future with any clarity in the 1970s is uncertain. Even then, Erwin and others understood that computing was remaking business, government, and society—and that there was a need to understand this immense historical force.
Three years after Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft in 1975, Erwin created the International Charles Babbage Society, which soon evolved into the Charles Babbage Institute. Perhaps the only other equally visionary act in the 1970s was Bob Bemer’s prescient warning of the so-called Y2K problem, looking ahead four decades. (Gordon and Gwen Bell’s Computer Museum in Boston was opened to the public in the 1980s and then later relocated and entirely re-organized into the present-day Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.)
Erwin once told me that founding the Charles Babbage Institute was an “experiment” for him. If so, it was a very carefully conducted one. In reviewing CBI’s founding documents, as I reported in the Fall 2012 newsletter, it is inescapable that Erwin and his advisors were setting up an institution that would be durable, strong, permanent. He’d gained experience on setting up and running start-up companies in the 1950s and 1960s and knew that getting the design right—and the people right—was important.
The great southern historian C. Vann Woodward famously discussed the “burden of history” in 1955, around the time Erwin was moving his family to southern California for a new phase of his business career. Let me assure you that the high-level people that Erwin assembled to launch the Charles Babbage Institute worked a powerful burden of history on me! How else could you respond when considering that such academic and industry luminaries as Alfred Chandler, Joshua Lederberg, Arthur Humphreys, Walter Bauer and many others had helped design and launch CBI. How in the world, I thought, could we ever hope to match their ambitions and expectations?
Yet in looking back on CBI’s more than three decades, there is quite a handsome record of achievement. As I write each year to our CBI Friends, thanks to their support the “core activities” at CBI are financially healthy and able to create a base for securing externally funded projects. Recently we’ve had grants from the National Science Foundation, the Association for Computing Machinery, and others. We have the world’s largest collection of publicly accessible archival material on all aspects of computer history, as Jeffrey Yost has been documenting in his newsletter series “Exploring the Archives” and as CBI archivist Arvid Nelsen is impressively adding to this moment (we have two wonderful new collections that need just a bit of finalizing before we can announce them).
We also have an unsurpassed collection of research-grade oral histories with people across the computing field. With the interviews that we conducted for our NSF-funded project on the FastLane computer system, our total now exceeds 700 oral history interviews. Thirty more interviews will come from our on-going NSF-funded history of computer security. And we have been actively publishing cutting-edge scholarship: to date CBI staff have published 19 books and a very impressive collection of articles and book chapters. CBI’s own Jeffrey Yost served two terms as Editor-in-Chief of IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, our field’s leading scholarly journal. This spring Jeff and I are writing seven chapters for what will be book #20.
Yes—actually—we have done remarkably well over three decades. The Charles Babbage Institute, like the field of computer history, is growing, changing, expanding—flourishing. Everyone who has been involved in this remarkable enterprise can be proud of these achievements. I sincerely hope that we have met and indeed exceeded Erwin’s hopes and dreams for computer history. If you’d like to become involved with the enterprise yourself—by joining the CBI Friends—drop me a line. Our job is making computer history!
Thomas J. Misa