Computer Pioneer Robert Royce Johnson Dies

March 31, 2016

Robert Royce Johnson, former chairman of the University of Utah computer science department, passed away Friday, March 25, in Salt Lake County due to complications from Parkinson’s Disease. He was 87.

Johnson was chairman of the U’s computer science department (now School of Computing) for two years beginning in 1987. He retired as Professor Emeritus in 1993.

In 1956, he joined General Electric’s research lab in Syracuse, N.Y., where he led the team that created the Electronic Recording Machine Accounting (ERMA) system. The bank check handling and accounting system, which was developed for the Bank of America, included the use of the magnetic ink character font that is used on bank checks today as well as with many other basic computing and check handling devices.

“It calculated balances and saved all of your checks for the month. It did all of those calculations while monitoring the bank’s checking system,” said his wife, Mary Johnson. “The ideas and fragments of them are still in use today.”


Johnson was hired on to the University of Utah as a tenured professor and chairman by David Evans, the department’s first chair and Johnson’s longtime colleague and friend.

“When he was working on something, he was fully engaged, either with whomever was talking to him or with whatever he was doing,” Mary Johnson said. “He just was a really nice guy. I’m getting calls from people who were his colleagues who said how helpful he was to them and that they really appreciated him.”

“Bob was a very inspirational figure whose perceptive understanding of technology and the world were always appreciated by those who gained access to his views,” said U School of Computing professor Rich Riesenfeld, who worked with Johnson. “His professionalism and character were paragons to admire and emulate.”

To see pictures and a tribute page for Johnson at the Michael J. Fox Foundation website, go here.

In lieu of flowers, the family would like to suggest contributions to the Bob Johnson Innovation Award for undergraduate computer science students.

Please send to:

University of Utah School of Computing
Bob Johnson Innovation Award
50 S. Central Campus Dr., 3190 MEB
Salt Lake City, UT, 84112.

If you would like to donate with a credit card go here. In the comments section please indicate that the donation is for the Robert Johnson Innovation Award.

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