Bank of America makes historical deposit at Computer History Museum

Bank of America makes historical deposit at Computer History Museum

The newest addition to the Computer History Museum’s permanent collection is called ERMA — it’s short for Electronic Recording Machine, Accounting — an early banking computer that you could say is the great-grandmother of today’s ATMs and mobile banking apps.

“ERMA was the first computerized banking system in the world,” said Raquel González, Silicon Valley Market President for Bank of America, which donated the massive machine to the museum in Mountain View. “Think about how far we have come from back then.”

“Back then” was the period right after World War II, when a wave of prosperity meant a lot more business for banks like San Francisco-based Bank of America, which was adding about 23,000 checking accounts every month. But those extra accounts — and checks paying for new cars, new appliances and new mortgages — meant banks had to close their doors at 2 or 3 p.m. every day just so tellers could deal with all the paperwork before quitting time.

Like companies would for the next several decades, Bank of America turned to Silicon Valley for a solution — and this was before “Silicon Valley” even existed.

Developed at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park and built by General Electric, ERMA was unveiled in 1955 and put into service in 1959. She — the early marketing materials featured a cartoon figure who could have been a prototype for Jane Jetson — could do the work of 2,500 bookkeepers, processing checks at 550 accounts per minute.

The system was 48 feet long, with a million feet of wiring, a high-speed printer, a check sorter, two magnetic memory drums and 12 magnetic tape drives. It processed checks quickly using magnetic ink character recognition — a then-new technology that remains in use on checks today (for those of us who still use checks). Later, ERMA made it possible for Bank of America to link customers’ checking accounts to a new service that was catching on — the credit card.

“More generally, ERMA demonstrated the potential of electronic data processing for banking transactions, got GE into the computer business, and was one of the earliest successful large-scale applications of computers to business anywhere,” Dag Spicer, senior curator for the Computer History Museum, wrote in a blog post about the donation. “Given that at the time the project started, electronic digital stored-program computers were less than five years old, ERMA was incredibly ambitious.”

Bank of America’s González said this ERMA machine had been preserved in one of Bank of America’s facilities in Concord, but the company had been looking for a place to display it where it could educate the public. Right now, ERMA is in storage, but the Computer History Museum expects to have it on display following a major refresh of “Revolution,” its main permanent exhibition, that is in the early planning stages now.

“We’re very excited that ERMA is coming back home to Silicon Valley after 64 years,” González said. “ERMA represented innovation at its best when it was developed, as so many pieces in the museum do. It’s important to the history of banking and the history of technology in general.”

MOVING ALONG: Gary Masters has announced his retirement from sjDANCEco, the modern dance company he founded in March 2003 that’s best known for its two-day spring festival for professional and community dance companies. For the company’s 21st season, Masters will hand over the reins to Maria Basile, his longtime co-artistic director with whom he has worked since sjDANCEco’s start.

“She has been, since the beginning, the company’s symbol of excellence through her extraordinary performances and stellar choreography,” Masters said.

Switching gears, the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition also didn’t have to pedal far to find a successor to Executive Director Shiloh Ballard, who announced plans last year to step down after eight years. Clarrissa Cabansagan is moving up from deputy director to take the top job at the nonprofit, which advocates for cycling and cyclists in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. Ballard will stay on to help with the transition until the official changing of the guard takes place at the 13th annual Silicon Valley Bike Summit on Aug. 24 in Mountain View.

Ballard said her successor is uniquely suited to implement the strategic plan the group recently adopted. “That plan is rooted in her core values, namely, the power of everyday people, in particular those who have been sidelined and ignored, to come together to create positive change — what we in the bike movement call ‘pedal power,’ ” Ballard said.