Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the "Diamond Owl" intellectual game "What? Where? When?"
Liberal ArtsNomina
7 minutes for reading

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Lubomyr Romankiw from Lviv region – leading scientist at IBM

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Lubomyr Romankiw from Lviv region – leading scientist at IBM
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How many modern computers does an average person have now? For example, I have had at least two of them for many years – a large desktop computer and a laptop. I am ready not to count mobile phones – even if we are talking only about those computers that have a magnetic disk.

A new type of such disks is already emerging – the solid-state drives. They are still more expensive, but faster. However, for a very long time, until they appeared, every such computer had had a hard drive. It was on it that almost all the information needed for the computer and me was stored.

This disk is an extremely sophisticated device rotating at a speed of several thousand revolutions per minute, where terabytes of information are stored. They can be read and written at a speed of gigabytes per second. Let me remind you that a gigabyte is a billion and a terabyte is a trillion.

It is on these disks that we store on each of our computers documents containing as much information as several thousand thick volumes, a huge number of photos, clips, and movies, as well as programs that allow us to watch and listen to all this and even more.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Lubomyr Romankiw from Lviv region – leading scientist at IBM
2.5-inch hard drive. Source: wikipedia.org




The number of such disks, which received the slang name “Winchester” (now people even say just “wint”) due to the accidental similarity of their digital designation with the well-known rifle cartridge, has clearly exceeded a billion long time ago. The computer boom would have been unthinkable without them.

And, probably, none of us will be surprised that the inventor of the main part of such a disk – a magnetic head – has the right to say: “Every time you press the power button of your computer, I am already working for you”. And we are talking about at least seven inventions.

Another thing is also interesting: he is still alive, healthy, and active enough for his age, and among other things, he is our compatriot, a native of the city of Zhovkva in the Lviv region. Have you ever heard his name and surname – Lubomyr Romankiw? If not, that’s a shame – you should know about such people.




He was born in 1931, when the city of Zhovkva was still a part of Poland. His father was a lawyer, the head of the local Prosvita (a society for preserving and developing Ukrainian culture and education), and a prominent person in the city, who spoke five languages. His mother led the city branch of the Union of Ukrainian Women.

You know what a time that was – the state affiliation of Zhovkva changed too often. Soviet troops entered Zhovkva in the evening, and at night “black lists” were already started to be drawn up, and it was clear that nothing good awaited those who were included in these lists.

People managed to warn Lubomyr’s father, and he and his family fled to the other bank of the Solokiya River, where the troops of the then Red Army ally, the Wehrmacht, were still present, and then went even further west. It was no fun at all, but at least they weren’t blacklisted…

It was difficult and bad to live in exile: the scientist recalls that he managed to survive mainly because his mother was well up in mushrooms and greens, and he had not even seen bread for at least six months. Father’s friends helped them to move to Austrian Salzburg – and it became a little easier there.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Lubomyr Romankiw from Lviv region – leading scientist at IBM
Lubomyr Romankiw with his parents and sister. Source: photo-lviv.in.ua


The war ended, and the family traveled from Salzburg to Munich, where Lubomyr graduated from 4-5 grades of a local Ukrainian school. Meanwhile, the parents found contacts with his great-grandfather’s brother, who lived in the Canadian province of Alberta, and finally got a permission to move there.

Lubomyr was helped to overcome the language barrier as quickly as possible by his own zeal, studies at a Catholic school, where there were a lot of students of the Ukrainian origin, and the fact that he knew physics and mathematics better than any Canadian graduate.

His English teacher told him: “If you don’t know the English word, write a Ukrainian one instead”. When the work was returned to him with a grade, it turned out that English words were written over the Ukrainian words – so he could remember them and learn. This was done by one of the teachers, also a Ukrainian.




He wanted to become an architect, but this training was expensive, so he went to chemical engineering. Out of forty students, he was the second in academic performance. He worked for a year at a chemical factory and rose from an engineer to the deputy director. But he wanted to learn more.

The dean of the University of Alberta, having assessed his abilities, gave him a recommendation to the best universities in America, and he entered the famous MIT – Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he quickly completed his master’s degree and became a doctor in metallurgy and materials science.

While choosing a job, he submitted 16 resumes to firms dealing with the on-trend electronics. They agreed to take him – all of them, so he had to choose. The world famous IBM became his choice, and he worked for it for 51 years until his retirement.




He immediately aimed himself at solving one of the main problems of computers that appeared then – the information storage devices. I still remember the magnetic disks of that time: stacks of six disks a meter in diameter, on which as many as six megabytes of information were stored.

No need to laugh: computers with 128KB memory were considered huge. More could be recorded on magnetic tape, but the rate of information exchange was incommensurable. In order for the discs to somehow work, they were installed on a concrete base, so that people could escape from the shaking.

The main limitation of the disk size then turned out to be magnetic heads for recording; moreover, they were virtually hand-made, with winding a wire around them. Lubomyr Romankiw’s goal was to solve the overwhelming task of reducing the size of heads and increasing their quality.

His very first developments were very successful. IBM appreciated the employee’s success and allowed him to patent the invention, but strictly forbade any publications so as not to inform competitors. During his first 15 years at IBM, he had no publications – only patents.




Two years later, after the continuous travels between the research institute in New York and the production facilities in California, the new magnetic heads came to fruition. At first, IBM wanted to put them only on new magnetic disks with a diameter of 25 cm instead of a meter, but can you really hold that down?

Romankiw started to create a small floppy drive, only 5 inches in diameter, purely for trial. And he was very lucky with one of his first buyers – it turned out to be the future Apple tech guru Steve Wozniak, who was already mentioned in our column (yes, their grandfathers lived almost nearby).

He immediately came up with an interesting idea: if a disc drive can be so small and not require concrete pedestals for operation, why not build a small computer on its basis, which can be kept not in a special huge hall, but at home on the table?

The idea was clearly tempting, but simply unfeasible previously; however, the discs of Lubomyr Romankiw allowed it to be implemented. At first, even his native IBM did not believe in it, but less than two years later, it began to produce them – and almost everyone joined the race of personal computers.


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Lubomyr Romankiw himself was not at all surprised – he had already been visited by more amazing ideas. He was already thinking of a drive that could be carried in a pocket and connected directly to the brain in order to memorize what the average person’s brain cannot find room for.

Then, in the seventies, they just laughed at him. His boss at IBM even refused to sign a consent to patent it – they would laugh, he said… Later Romankiw said that now, when Elon Musk is already working on a computer that can be connected to a monkey’s brain, it does not seem so funny at all.

But Romankiw’s idea of ​​creating inductive and magneto-resistive micro-heads for recording and reading information on hard disks of computers was also quite sufficient for success and fame. However, this is quite far from all that he did…

He himself considers his important merit the utilization of electrochemical technologies in computers, which were previously used mainly for the manufacture of bijouterie. He directed the Thomas J. Watson Center for Electrochemical Technology and Microstructures at IBM.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Lubomyr Romankiw from Lviv region – leading scientist at IBM
Source: ukrainianpeople.us

His work on the study of magnetic materials, reflective displays, and copper plating processes is important even now. He patented 65 inventions and became the author and co-author of more than 150 scientific papers and editor of more than 10 volumes of materials of various technical symposia.




As for the secret of his success, he says: “A little angel sits on my shoulder and prompts me”. And then he honestly admits that most of his successes were accidental. He simply did not know how, even in case of failures, to abandon his plans and does not understand the words “this is impossible”.

When Lubomyr Romankiw is told that something cannot be done, he always answers: “If you cannot, then someone else has to do it for you.” If he does not immediately reach the goal, he ponders what has been achieved and tries to figure out how to use it.

The list of his accomplishments is immense. His portrait is in the US National Inventor’s Hall of Fame. After Sikorsky, Romankiw became the second Ukrainian whose portrait was placed in this Hall. He is listed in the prestigious publications Who’s Who in the Scientific World and Who’s Who in America.


ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Lubomyr Romankiw from Lviv region – leading scientist at IBM
Lubomyr Romankiw on the website of the US National Hall of Fame. Source: photo-lviv.in.ua

For his achievements, he received the Perkin Medal – the highest award of the US Chemical Industry Society, the Vittorio de Noor Medal from the US Electrochemical Society, the Morris Liebmann Prize, and was twice recognized as “Inventor of the Year”. Not everyone is given.




But there is a field of activity in which the merits of Lubomyr Romankiw are quite comparable with his scientific contributions. This is an activity in the ranks of Plast – the Ukrainian division of the scout organization, in which he was from adolescence and continues to be involved in to this day.

In this organization, he has gone through the entire career path to the very top: cub leader, educator, messenger, rover, kosh leader, and stanitsa leader – and became a member of the organization’s top leadership. Already as chairman, he successfully negotiated the inclusion of Plast in world scouting.

He says:

Plast self-organized me and gave me a certain way of thinking, the Ukrainian patriotism. My parents said: “You cross the front doorstep and you are already in our Ukraine. There is a strange world beyond that doorstep. But our Ukraine is also here”


He takes pride in his title of Primary Plast Scout, saying, “For me, a Primary Plast Scout is an honorary title. This is the person who makes highest value judgments and controls that the organization is moving in the right direction – in a way that is the best for Plast and the youth of Ukraine”.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Lubomyr Romankiw from Lviv region – leading scientist at IBM
Source: sm.plast.org.ua




He visited Ukraine very often, almost annually, until 2013, when doctors did not recommend him to fly anymore. And once he visited his homeland back in 1980. People called him to Moscow, but he asked if he could go to Kyiv and Lviv. They answered him: “It is possible to go to Kyiv, but they will not allow you to go to Lviv”.

After his speech in Moscow, he was immediately invited to Kyiv. There a man approached him, not presenting himself, and said: “They are waiting for you in Lviv, but I did not tell you that”. He went there. Two people met him at the station and said: “We will take care of you”. And they did not leave him almost round the clock.

In Lviv, he also delivered a speech, but only for the professors – students were not allowed to attend the meeting. He met with the students at a Kyiv restaurant. When he was starting to talk about politics, one of the Romankiw’s escorts was stamping his foot. Then he took the guest’s hand, tucked it under the chair, and allowed to grope the microphone.




By the way, then he was offered to stay in Ukraine: they asked if his heart was thumping hard and promised all kinds of amenities and rewards. He replied: “My heart does thump hard, but I have a job waiting for me”. By the way, during the years of independence he has never been offered a job in Ukraine – maybe they were afraid of refusal?

Romankiw, however, said himself: “Working at IBM, I can do more for Ukraine than here”. In the United States, he constantly worked with Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese, but not with Ukrainians – no one gives them scholarships for such training. And other countries do, being sure that they will only earn more on this.

He believes that strong young people, who have seen the world, perceived it, and came back, having worked abroad and gained invaluable experience, can change Ukraine. Where can we find such people and how can we encourage them to return? He does not say this, but it would be interesting…




Now Lubomyr Romankiw is already retired, being comfortably off. He could have been resting somewhere in the tropics, but he’s not that kind of person and continues to do a lot. He thought he would start traveling in retirement, but it turned out that he had not been only to India and South Africa, having already visited other countries.

He is remembered in his native country. In 2020, he was awarded the Order of Prince Yaroslav the Wise of the V degree. And in 2013, he was made an honorary citizen of his hometown of Zhovkva. But he lives in the town of Briarcliff Manor in the United States and has Canadian citizenship. Nobody offered him the Ukrainian one…

Romankiw himself says:

Yes, I consider myself an American citizen and I consider myself a Canadian citizen – I have a passport. But in my soul I feel that I am Ukrainian. When I come to Ukraine, I feel that I am in my own country, where I was born, and everything is dear for me

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