Erwin Tomash: Early high-tech computer visionary

  • Article by: DAVID SHAFFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 22, 2012 - 7:15 PM

Minnesota technology pioneer Erwin Tomash, who helped develop early digital computers used in American business and later founded an institute to study the history of the digital age, has died in California, where he resided most of his life.

Minnesota technology pioneer Erwin Tomash helped develop and sell one of the early computers used by business, founded a major printer and peripherals company and left behind an endowed institute to study the history of information technology.

The St. Paul native died Dec. 10 in California, where he had resided since 1953. He was 91 and had suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

Tomash was among the bright electrical engineers who helped launch Minnesota's computer industry after World War II.

One of his early jobs was as a project engineer for Engineering Research Associates (ERA), working with William Norris, who later became CEO of Control Data Corp., and Seymour Cray, who later invented the supercomputers bearing his name. Like them and others from ERA, Tomash went on to lead computer companies.

"They were the anchor that the Minnesota computer industry sprang from," said historian Thomas Misa, director of the Charles Babbage Institute, a center for the study of the history of information technology founded by Tomash. It is at the University of Minnesota.

Tomash, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, attended St. Paul schools, graduated from the University of Minnesota with an electrical engineering degree in 1943 and served as an officer with the Army Signal Corps in Europe during World War II.

After the war, while working for ERA in Washington, he earned a master's degree in electrical engineering at the University of Maryland. He moved back to St. Paul in 1950 to work on a military version of the computer later called Univac.

Tomash urged Remington Rand, which acquired ERA, to market the computer to business customers. Tomash moved to Los Angeles in 1953 to lead that effort for the company, which later became Sperry Rand.

In 1962, Tomash founded Dataproducts Corp., a printer and peripherals company that had its first manufacturing plant in St. Paul. The plant was acquired in a spinoff from Telex, which had tried unsuccessfully to develop a computer printer. Dataproducts solved the technical problems and began selling the first "low-cost" printers -- at about $7,000 apiece, equivalent to more than $50,000 in today's dollars.

"Those are big prices now, but then those were breakthroughs," Tomash said in 1983. A 1960s-era competitor, he noted, sold printers for $35,000 each.

Dataproducts grew into a Fortune 500 company that was acquired by Hitachi in 1990. Tomash left the company's board in 1989, after ending his executive role several years earlier.

Tomash had long seen a need to preserve the computer industry's history. He collected more than 3,000 books on the history of computation, and published a three-volume bibliography of the collection in 2008.

Tomash died in his home in Soquel, Calif. He is survived by his wife, two daughters, Barbara Tomash of Berkeley, Calif., and Sarada Diffenbaugh Watsonville, Calif.; three grandsons, and five great-grandchildren.

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090

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