“When you boot up your PC, seven of my patents are at play and the same is true when you start typing,” was how Lubomyr T. Romankiw, a still very active veteran Ukrainian American IBM Fellow and researcher at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, who had invented a technique that allowed to record data on the magnetic head of a hard disk 44 years back, explained his contribution to IT progress.
The man doesn’t have a PC at home, saying the machine would take up all his leisure time. The fact remains that many years of fruitful research brought him to the National Inventors Hall of Fame (March 2012). His portrait is displayed there, along with those of other prominent inventors, including Steve Jobs, although some of Romankiw’s colleagues are chagrined, saying Jobs would have never got there but for Romankiw’s developments.
You will perhaps appreciate the fact that this interview is taking place on the eve of the World Teachers’ Day. You are sharing your knowledge and experience with younger researchers. Who do you think was your teacher, one who shared his knowledge with you, who changed your lifestyle, who made you alter the trajectory of world scientific progress?
“Many people have shared their knowledge with me, above all my parents. They wanted me to finish high school so much, they were willing to pay. There were no public schools during the war, so they hired teachers and I had classes at home. In the field of research, a faculty dean at the University of Alberta was my luminary. The man is 96. He kept telling us that the end result of any research should not be a short item that would appear in a journal, but that the result should be important enough to at least justify our pay until our dying day; even better if that result created between 100 and 1,000. That was what partially motivated me when working on disk read/write heads. I knew that many people would use that technology. I may have wondered about the uses of that technology for humankind. I was tasked with recording and storing computer-generated data. That was my sole task, but as time passed it became obvious that digitally recorded data was the basis of worldwide communications.”
How long did it take you to realize this – I mean from when you set yourself this task and finally became aware of its significance?
“That didn’t happen overnight. My task was to find a way to replace the hard disk heads, then horseshoe-shaped and manually wire-bound, a very costly procedure, considering that their size couldn’t be diminished. I had to find a way to launch them into serial and inexpensive production. There were nine other companies working along the same lines, trying to solve the same problem. They had different approaches and theories. I was a trained chemical, electrochemical and steel engineer. That training allowed me to combine magnetism and electrochemistry, something most of my rivals couldn’t do. People who worked for our rivals were physicists who knew little about electrochemistry. They regarded it as something akin to black magic. At the time, electrochemistry subsisted as papers shelved in university libraries, in small imitation jewelry businesses, and suchlike. They did not need special metal qualities. All they needed was for their products to look special, silver- or gold-plated. I had to come up with a ‘magic’ material for the disk heads.”
Was that why you received the magician’s hat from your colleague?
“That’s right. He told me I had turned black magic into technology. He was into electrical engineering and knew nothing about electrochemistry. He thought what I was doing was black magic. In fact, most electrochemists on university payroll regarded my research as black magic. I was uncovering what was going on within their machines. They didn’t know and didn’t want to know. It’s like baking bread. No one cares about what kind of chemical process is taking place in the oven. Bread is what they get in the end, that’s OK by them. The same was true of my colleagues who applied such electrochemical procedures. In contrast, I tried to figure out the techniques and scientifically justify them. I had to deal with a tiny layer, one-hundredth-millimeter from the cathode. The electrode was the basis upon which I developed that kind of metal. I had a notion of what was happening, but there was also that Guardian-angel sitting on my shoulder, whispering his approval or disapproval of my plans and deeds. Intuition is very important in many cases.”
Intuition plus knowledge, right?
Steve Wozniak was the first to apply your technology. He bought the first small hard disk fresh from IBM. That was before your company started putting out PCs. At the time Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs came up with Apple 1. Didn’t the Steves’ team offer you to join them?
“They didn’t and they couldn’t. They could build their first PC once they got hold of the first small disk we’d built. Until then there was nothing they could have done. They started manufacturing their first PC series after they’d bought our first small disk shipment. When Steve Jobs and I were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Washington, I was told I was as good as Jobs. The rest of my team would keep telling me later to tell them that, but for my invention of the disk, Steve Jobs would’ve had nothing to write home about, that he would’ve never been in that Hall of Fame. True enough. Wozniak bought the first disks we’d developed, and then he built the first PC. Steve Jobs developed the technology afterward.”
UKRAINIANS ARE WAY AHEAD IN MAGNETIC RECORDING AND DATA TRANSFER
Getting prepared for this interview, I browsed the UAlberta website and learned that you spoke to other Hall of Fame nominees during the night before the award ceremony. What did you talk about?
“Those were remarkably interesting people to talk to. There were many of them and I spoke with a man who had invented the processor. Without his technology, there would have been no PC – just as there would have been none without my magnetic head. There were also many people who had to do with data transfer – and I would like to praise the world-known scientist, Charovsky, God rest his soul. He came from a Ukrainian family and was a member of the Plast Ukrainian Scouting Organization… he came up with the idea of long distance [optical] fiber data transfer.”
When was he inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame?
“He wasn’t inducted. I remember him; I’d like to stress that Ukrainians are way ahead of all others in the field of magnetic recording and data transfer. But for Charovsky’s discovery, we might have had to make do with wires.”
This November marks the 51st anniversary of your affiliation with IBM. I know you’re proud of it, but let me ask whether you have never had a change of heart, even in your mind, over the years? Your company has survived a number of transformations; IBM isn’t in its usual good shape these days.
“I have been frequently offered better jobs with different companies. I could have become director of Dr. Siegel’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. I was offered the post, but I declined. If I accepted, I’d have to work only in the magnetic recording field. I’m interested in other [related] fields. As I stayed at IBM, new horizons opened up for me, along with new opportunities. I focused on reflective displays, copper plating, and the usage of electrochemistry for packing chips. I’m working on solar batteries and chip current change indicators. I’m working in various fields, and if I’d changed the job, I’d be reduced to a single field. I’m interested in far more than magnetic data recording. That was a step I took on a longer and broader road, with many doors open.”
IBM LAB OPPORTUNITY IN UKRAINE: NIL
You are meeting with numerous young researchers in the electrochemical field, willing to share your 50-year experience. Have you ever considered the possibility of launching an IBM lab in Ukraine?
“I have. In December 2012, USA-Ukraine Associated commended me for my research merits and invited me to take part in a conference. That conference was attended by Ukrainian researchers on a large scale. They offered lots of projects to be sponsored by US companies. I invited only one man who specialized in the establishment of upgraded IBM labs; he had set up such a lab in Kenya. That was the right place and time to make one in Ukraine – they [i.e. IBM] regarded Ukraine as an ideal jumping-off point for a similar project in Eastern Europe. But then our trip, scheduled for May, was rescheduled. I had bought an early Saturday flight, but was informed on Friday that the trip had been canceled.”
“Because of misunderstanding between the participants, involving ministries, and universities. On the one hand, there was IBM and there was USA-Ukraine, on the other hand. Then it transpired that the participants had to be in two different places at the same time. I was among the delegation members, as the organizer of a new lab, along with a company expert from Shanghai, and a man from Tel Aviv. When time came to negotiate a visit at a later date, those two couldn’t travel with us. We’ll have to visit later, hopefully before long. I’m considering the options of cooperation with Ukrainian higher schools, trying to choose a polytechnic institute IBM could do business with. If I do, I’ll select a [postgraduate student] for IBM-funded internship, or will sign a contract with a Ukrainian company or university. At the moment, such opportunities appear to be frozen, considering the decline in Ukraine’s economy since we embarked on our project (December 2012) – and my company cares very much about the profit rate, with plans and projects changing each quarter of the year, depending on revenues. We’ve had bad revenues the past two quarters, and we have bad forecasts until the first quarter of the next year. So far, I see no opportunity for an IBM lab in Ukraine. I’m working on other possibilities, so we can resume work as soon as possible.”
Which of the Ukrainian higher schools have you considered?
“I’ve visited the [Taras Shevchenko] National University, the Polytechnic Institute of Lviv, the Ivan Franko National University, Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. I’ll shortly visit the Ukrainian Catholic University. I still can’t tell you which of these will become our partner… All I can say is that I saw the best developments in Lviv. They have lots of good programmers there. Lviv is reaching a high [IT] level. Kharkiv comes next. Kyiv is perhaps lower in terms of ratings, but here IT specialists easily find well-paid jobs. As a matter of fact, I believe that Kyiv is brimming with IT specialists.”
I watched you on our Channel 5 in Ukraine. When asked by Tseholko about what should be done in Ukraine to help companies like IBM start doing business, you said it takes the right kind of environment. Would you specify?
“Ukraine could borrow experience from China or South Korea with its 25-year program. Under this program, South Korean college/university straight-A students can further study in Western Europe or in the United States. They receive good scholarship and are allowed to work for at least two years in the country where they studied. After that, they are literally bought out of the host country by the home country; they are offered well-paid jobs. I know Koreans who studied for five years, then worked for two years in the US. Their home company gave them a car as a present, so they would agree to return to South Korea and work there. China also sends students to study abroad. Each year Beijing pays thousands [of dollars] to Chinese US [college/university] graduates, along with professorship opportunities at the Chinese University. Ukraine has never given this a try, although I suggested as much, back in the 1990s, but then your country either had no money, or misunderstood the need. For all I know, Ukraine has preserved two solid businesses since the 1990s: Pivdenmash and Antonov Aircraft Design Bureau. These businesses survived only because the contemporary political leadership included politicians who realized their importance. Ukraine had far more interesting projects to offer, but they were shelved because there weren’t enough bureaucrats in the ministries prepared to defend the national interest in a given technology or industry. I can give you an example. I have a close relative in Ivano-Frankivsk oblast. She specialized in biochemistry and had quite some kudos there. She is finishing her [postgraduate] Ph.D. course in Canada, planning to master medicine. Her professional skills were of no use in Ukraine: no employment opportunities, no university where she could teach her subject. Once, attending a conference in Japan, I met with a resident of Kyiv who was working for Samsung.”
ELECTING PRESIDENT MINUS TEAM MAKES NO SENSE
Back in 1997, you were elected as the Nachalny Plastun (or Chief Scout) of the Plast Ukrainian Scouting Organization that has ramified structures in nine countries across the world. You have repeatedly stated in interviews that what you have, physically, you owe to Plast. Similar statements have been made by Bohdan Hawrylyshyn and Erast Huculak. What makes Plast so very special? In your video blog you say that out of more than fifty peoples that survived WW II represent 40 nations have Scouts in their top political leadership, and that Ukraine needs a Scout presidential candidate.
“Raising a president takes a very long while. Over the 20 years of national independence, Plast has produced leaders in local and central authorities, with two in the Verkhovna Rada. I think that raising a Plast-bred presidential candidate will take between 15 and 20 years. I hope this project will succeed. I believe that raising a candidate, making him dedicated to his people, training him as a good administrator, will take years. The main thing is to have more than one such candidate. It takes a self-sufficient team. Electing president minus team makes no sense.”
You said that the Orange Revolution in 2004 did much to revive the money-earning spirit in Ukraine. What did you mean, exactly?
“We expected a team to come to power, made up of people prepared to understand that accord and cooperation come first for any kind of administration. Regrettably, the Ukrainian [political] elite is not prepared to accept their own or the opposition’s man as head of state for whom national matters are way above his personal ones – and that’s precisely what Plast is all about. We sing about the raising of a new kind of people, for whom the well-being of their nation-state comes first, followed by their individual ideas and desires. We’re using the differing views to upgrade our system. There must be no only-my-view approach. Democracy is all about various views, where each can adopt a certain point of view, possibly joining others with similar views, which is the best under certain political circumstances.”
What about Ukraine and its current political leadership?
“I’m all out for Ukraine’s current decision to go along with the European Union. There are positive changes taking place in Ukraine. Of course, you will have to surmount obstacles; some of your goods may find themselves banned, but all these problems will be eventually resolved; there will be other markets, other goods, and our Northern good old neighbor will eventually accept and appreciate Ukrainian candies and cheeses.”
You visited Ukraine first in 1972. You have been visiting Ukraine on a regular annual basis, since the date of national independence. Have you noticed any changes in city streets, in your acquaintances?
“Kyiv is getting to be another big-world city. The same is true of Lviv. If and when Ukraine becomes part of the European Union, changes will come quicker and more positive. One thing I dislike is the condition of Ukrainian roads. My impression is that the authorities no longer want to invest in road construction projects, so the hot-rodding Ukrainians will have to make do with the potholes.”
PC TO BE LINKED TO THE BRAIN
What kind of sources do you use to keep up to date on Ukraine?
“The Internet. I access practically all online Ukrainian periodicals. I keep my schedule: from midnight until 3-3.5 a.m. Then I turn in. About five hours of sleep is enough for me.”
Social networking, Facebook?
“That’s not for me, save for a brief professional social networking account. I’m spending so much time working the Internet, I wouldn’t have had time enough to step away from my workstation if I had appeared in Facebook. Moreover, I don’t have a PC at home, not even a laptop, otherwise I would have no time to sleep. When it comes time, I close my Notebook at the office and go home. I return early the next morning and start reading my email. I’m a man who is interested in all kinds of things. Sometimes I can’t help embarking on a new project. Some may regard this as a whim of an IBM whiz who invented magnetic heads, but who doesn’t have a PC. In fact, I’m looking forward to the time when PC can be linked to the brain, so fresh data can be downloaded while you are asleep. Then I’ll take that button and put it in my ear (laughing).”
When do you think this will happen?
“I don’t know. Perhaps before long. Back in 1965, I applied for a patent for a computer-brain-link design. The whole thing is simple: you carry a device in your pocket that receives a signal from your brain when you want something put on record, and then it records it. My boss, who was entitled to sign my application, told me that my idea was so crazy he would be an idiot to sign it, and I never made that patent. In 1995, they started experimenting with computers linked to monkey brains. Therefore, my ear-button idea seems very practical. For all I know, it may become standard practice in 20 years from now. It’s just that I’m getting ahead of time with this concept; that I came up with this idea 50 years too early.”