Abstract: ERMA: Automating Check Processing, or a New Business Spatial Strategy for Bank of America, 1955-1966

Olga Pantelidou


ERMA looks at the world's first commercial computer banking system as a spatial technology that brought about catalytic changes for the entire banking industry. Early in the 1960s, in the midst of a population boom in California that caused a shortage of banks and strained their ability to offer timely service, San Francisco-based Bank of America, the only bank to practice state-wide branching, introduced ERMA, Electronic Recording Machine-Accounting. ERMA was a large-scale, fully automated bookkeeping system. It replaced 2,500 Bank of America bookkeepers (mostly women) by processing checks at the whirlwind speed of 550 accounts a minute. Checks today still bear the magnetic ink character recognition (MICR) characters that were developed for this system. ERMA came at a time when the crippling workload necessitated by the bank's massive state-wide network effectively curtailed further branch growth. This technology, clothed in a slick, modern burgundy and coral metallic skin, required a unique spatial format: pairs of them were encased in nondescript ERMA Centers distributed throughout the state. They comprised a network nested between Bank of America's administration and branches. Customer information that was previously 'stored' in a personal relationship with a local banker was now available bank-wide. ERMA concentrated Bank of America's knowledge, providing invaluable data for business-building that would be prohibitively expensive to obtain by other means. It allowed the bank to once again expand service to sprouting California communities and in turn influenced the architecture of the 238 new branches. From its inception in 1902 under the name Bank of Italy, Bank of America had a confrontational relationship with banking law as it sought to overcome limits placed on its operational space; earlier episodes had led to similar spatial innovations to those developed under ERMA. The paper analyzes ERMA, the emerged network typologies, and the new branches as architectural spaces with a particular focus on how these architectures fostered internal cohesion for Bank of America and promoted relationships between the bank and the state's distinct communities. The core of the history is constructed from original archival material drawn directly from the Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota Libraries, as well as other sources.