In Memoriam: Erwin Tomash

Erwin Tomash, founder of the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota and Dataproducts Corporation, died on Dec. 10, 2012. He was 91. Tomash was a recognized pioneer in the computer industry and was among the first who envisioned the commercial potential of computers.

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Tomash was born Nov. 17, 1921 in St. Paul, Minn. He received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Minnesota in 1943 before serving in the Army Signal Corps during World War II. After the war, he worked at Engineering Research Associates (ERA), the pioneering Minnesota computer company, while earning a master’s degree at the University of Maryland.

At ERA, Tomash was a project engineer for the 1103 computer designed for the Navy in 1951-52. He proposed that the machine could be modified to suit a commercial market, which it was subsequently with great success. In 1956, he became president of Telemeter Magnetics, one of the first entrants into the core memory industry, which made data storage affordable for the first time. The company went public in 1959.

Tomash founded Dataproducts Corporation in 1962, which became the world's largest independent manufacturer of letter quality high-speed printers. Under his leadership, Dataproducts grew into a publicly held Fortune 500 Company, with 5,000 employees. Informatics and Data Card were innovative subsidiaries.

During the 1970s, he consulted with leaders in the academic, museum, and business worlds about creating an institution to support and foster computer history. He established Tomash Publishers to reprint classic computer-related books and initiated a project to collect oral histories from computer industry pioneers and scientists. He envisioned an institution dedicated to researching and preserving the history of computing. With the support of other computer luminaries, in 1979, he founded and endowed the Charles Babbage Institute now housed at the University of Minnesota.

In 1978, he and his wife, Adelle, established the Adelle and Erwin Tomash Fellowship in the History of Information Technology. The fellowship is awarded annually to a doctoral student completing their dissertation, and now includes many leaders in the field.

Tomash worked on the boards of several non-profit organizations, including the Coro Foundation, and mentored many start-up non-profit and for-profit entrepreneurs. He was appreciated in the computer industry and among family and friends for his integrity, keen intellect, entrepreneurial spirit, generous heart, and visionary mind.

Tomash is survived by his wife, daughters, three grandsons, and five great-grandchildren.