Bernie Newcomb, the blind programmer who created E-Trade, dies at 79

In early 1996, a spunky start-up company in Palo Alto, Calif., bought full-page ads in newspapers declaring, in big bold letters, “Your broker is now obsolete.”

Soon other plucky ads from the company began appearing. “Boot your broker,” said one. Another featured a growling dog: “Don’t let high commissions bite your assets,” it said.

The start-up behind these ads was E-Trade, a revolutionary company that allowed anyone with a computer and internet connection to buy and sell stocks without calling a broker or even putting on pants. The man who made it all work was Bernie Newcomb, a legally blind, self-taught programmer.

Mr. Newcomb, who died Jan. 29 at age 79, started E-Trade with William A. Porter. As co-founders, they were a bit like Apple’s Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Porter, like Jobs, was the visionary marketer and calculating businessman. Mr. Newcomb, like Wozniak, was the genius coder.

“He was a great programmer, a powerhouse,” Porter told the San Jose Mercury News.

Born with congenital cataracts, Mr. Newcomb read by holding books inches from his face, and as a boy his mother knew he had been at the comic book store after school if there was ink on his nose. What Mr. Newcomb lacked in vision he made up in memory and hearing.

Working with large mainframe computers early in his career, he could tell the difference between punch cards by how they sounded. Later, he worked out elaborate coding structures in his head.

“He had a mind like a steel trap when it came to where everything is,” said Porter, who died in 2015. “His programming was the same way. He knew exactly where the code was.”

Mr. Newcomb and Porter met in 1980 at a Halloween party in Palo Alto. Porter had just purchased an Apple II computer and wanted to use it to trade stocks. He was talking about the idea at the party and someone told him he should meet Mr. Newcomb, a freelance programmer. The two hit it off.

They named the company Trade Plus — stylized as “Trade*Plus,” with an asterisk added for pizazz, Porter later wrote — and initially focused on serving discount brokers such as CD Anderson and Fidelity, which used the software Mr. Newcomb wrote to allow their customers to trade stocks online. A Michigan dentist executed the company’s first trade in 1983.

Eventually, brokers developed their own online trading technology and didn’t need Trade Plus anymore. Porter and Mr. Newcomb pivoted, launching E-Trade in 1992 (similarly stylized as “E*Trade”) as an online broker eventually competing head-on against Fidelity, Charles Schwab and others big names in the financial industry. E-Trade charged $12 per trade, a significant discount.

The financial press breathlessly covered E-Trade’s disruption. The Wall Street Journal described the nascent industry as like having “a broker in a box.”

E-Trade went public in 1996 at $10.50 a share. The share price more than doubled a year later, making Mr. Newcomb a rich man. He left the firm and set about giving away his fortune.

“It is larger than life right now in some respects, just because it has been so successful,” an electronic commerce analyst with the investment banking firm then known as Piper Jaffray, told American Banker in 1997. “Those guys have delivered.”

Bernard Alan Newcomb was born on Nov. 10, 1943, in Scio, Ore., a logging town about 70 miles south of Portland. His father worked jobs including school janitor and grounds manager of a local golf course. His mother was a grocery store clerk who hand-sewed the family’s clothes.

Bing, as his family called him, started his education at school for blind children but transferred to a public school in third grade, part of a lifelong pattern of trying to live a normal life.

He never learned Braille. When his desk was situated in the back of a classroom, his mother would demand the teacher move him to the front row. He rode a bike with a bright light attached. Unable to play football, he was the team’s water boy.

Wearing thick “coke bottle” glasses, as he called them, he was a fixture at games and practices.

“I’d run out on the field with a bucket of water for kids to mop their brows,” Mr. Newcomb later told the Oregonian newspaper. “I didn’t pine away. I’d learned pretty early what I could and couldn’t do.”

After graduating from high school as valedictorian, he studied business and accounting at Oregon State University. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1965 but struggled to find a job, with employers unwilling to take a chance on him because of his eyesight.

Eventually, an OSU academic counselor convinced General Electric to give him a chance as a data processor. He taught himself to program.

“No one told me I couldn’t do things and so I just muddled through and did them,” Mr. Newcomb later said. “It wasn’t great, but it’s all I had.”

Mr. Newcomb died at his home in Palo Alto, according to his wife, the former Gerry Lee Marshall. He had been ill for several years with a neurological condition. In addition to his wife, survivors include a brother and stepson. A previous marriage, to Carol Kearney, ended in divorce.

Mr. Newcomb’s wife said his philanthropy was directed at the world that shaped him — organizations supporting the blind, OSU and his hometown.

His high school’s 1961 yearbook shows him in a letterman jacket standing in front of a laundry machine and washing the team’s uniforms. Sometimes, to change loads, he had to sprint out of math class.

In 2000, he spent more than $1.5 million to build the team a new football stadium.

“My story,” he once said, “is just absolute stick-to-it-ivness.”

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