Erwin Tomash (1921 – 2012)

By Thomas J. Misa (ACM History Committee Member)

At CBI we wish to recognize the passing of Erwin Tomash, who died last week at his home. A funeral home announcement can be found here.

It’s not easy to give a short version of Erwin’s impact on computer history. First and foremost, he was the founder of the Charles Babbage Institute and for years its guiding spirit. In the 1970s, even before he retired from Dataproducts, he consulted with leaders in the academic, museum, and business worlds about creating an institution to support and foster computer history. Initially located in California, CBI’s first task was finding a permanent home. It turned out that the University of Minnesota put in the winning bid in a national competition; see here with a permanent link. CBI moved to Minnesota in 1980, Arthur Norberg arrived the next year as director, and the field of computer history would never be the same.

Arthur took up Erwin’s plans to have CBI engage in collecting archival materials on computer history, conducting oral histories, and engaging in research projects. In practice, these three activities have been complementary ones. A significant number of CBI’s 200+ archival collections have roots in an oral history and/or CBI research project. A special issue of IEEE Annals of the History of Computing (2001) provides additional details and perspectives, as does the CBI Newsletter (Fall 2003) on CBI’s 25-year anniversary.

Since 1978 CBI has awarded the Adelle and Erwin Tomash Fellowship in the History of Information Technology, to a Ph.D. student completing their dissertation. The 32 recipients, beginning with the first awardee Bill Aspray and continuing to the most-recent Ksenia Tatarchenko, now include many leaders in our field. At the University of Minnesota an additional Tomash fund supports our Ph.D. students.

Erwin was also a book person. In the 1980s the CBI-Tomash Reprint Series published notable editions with expert commentaries. Some of these volumes are still available. Then, notably, there was Erwin’s personal efforts in rare-book collecting. A glimpse of his efforts is The Erwin Tomash Library on the History of Computing: An Annotated and Illustrated Catalog, a significant scholarly effort itself done in collaboration with Mike Williams.

We are planning our spring CBI Newsletter to deal more fully with Erwin’s long life and remarkable career. If you would like to write a personal note to Adelle Tomash, please contact CBI at cbi@umn.edu for her address.