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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Concord, California - My Date With ERMA

I managed to get through Paul Morton's papers at Berkeley in the early afternoon.  That left me with just enough time to get over to Concord before Bank of America would close.

I was on my way to the Bank of America data processing center which houses one of the original ERMA check-processing computers.  This is a little known but very significant computer history exhibit.  Beginning in about 1950, Stanford Research Institute (SRI) took on a job for Bank of America to build a computer to handle check-processing.  SRI built a prototype for the bank.  Eventually, the Bank put out for bid the job of building production versions.  Remarkably, the job went to General Electric, who not only was not in the computer business but whose CEO, Ralph Cordiner, wanted to make sure didn't get into the computer business.  This obviously makes for an interesting story and you can read about it in this book, King of the Seven Dwarfs by Homer Oldfield.  As I write this post, there are six used copies of the book available used on Amazon at prices ranging from $124 to $753.  It is a good read!

Unfortunately, traffic was heavy heading to Concord, I missed the exit, and silly me, I kept looking for a building with a big Bank of America sign on it.

By the time that I pulled into the parking lot, it was about 5:30.  But I had longed for a look at ERMA for many years.  Maybe she would be visible through a window?  I was in luck.  The technology center runs multiple shifts and ERMA resides near the cafeteria in Building 2000.

ERMA shares the entry to the cafeteria with B of A bank founder, A. P. Giannini, a fitting tribute to her importance.  This picture shows the whole unit.

Most bankers are going to be interested in the check sorter and the discussion of magnetic ink characters at the bottom of all our checks.

You and I, of course, are more interested in the computer.

The man who spearheaded the effort on ERMA - and saw to it that those funny looking numbers on the bottom of all our checks got to be a standard was Al Zipf.  ERMA and I were standing in the Zipf building referenced in this NYT Al Zipf obituary.  (The sign pictured below was constructed when ERMA was exhibited in a different location.)

By the way, when SRI was building the prototype machine, they contracted with my favorite computer company, ElectroData, for memory drums and tape transports.  These were constructed in hush-hush fashion in rooms above the floor where the Datatron was being built in Pasadena.

I later discovered the reason I had trouble finding the B of A complex in Concord.  I guess I haven't been keeping up on the news.  This 2008 article notes BofA wanting to sell their four buildings in Concord for $200 a square foot.  This 2012 article says they were sold for $75 a square foot in 2011.  And this local blogger notes that the BofA sign was removed in March of this year.  If you want to see ERMA, you might want to hurry before she gets lost in the next move.

More on building ERMA can be found here.

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