Growing up in a working-class family in small-town Oregon, Bing Newcomb would have probably been destined for work in the region’s sawmills or lumberyards after high school except for one thing: He was legally blind.
So instead he went to college, becoming the first in his family to graduate. He then became a computer programmer and invented a system that revolutionized stock trading, enabling individual investors to buy and sell shares on their personal computers and making him a multimillionaire.
Mr. Newcomb, who co-founded the company E*Trade and wrote the computer code that made it work, died on Jan. 29 at his home in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 79. His death was reported locally earlier but announced only last month by the family through Oregon State University, his alma mater and a major beneficiary of his philanthropy. His wife, Gerry Newcomb, said the cause was congestive heart failure after neurological complications.
In 1980, Mr. Newcomb and William A. Porter were introduced by a mutual friend at a Halloween party in Palo Alto. Mr. Porter, a onetime cowboy turned electronics whiz, had just purchased an Apple II personal computer, the company’s first model aimed at consumers. How, he wondered, could he and other individuals use the new technology to buy and sell stocks from home?
Mr. Newcomb, who had been working as a freelance computer programmer, hiring himself out to banks and other businesses that needed a guide to emerging digital technologies, provided the answers.
In 1982, with $15,000 in capital, the partners started TradePlus, one of the first electronic trading platforms. Its first trade was made on July 11, 1983, by a Michigan dentist.
By enabling investors to trade stocks from their computers, the company cut the cost of transactions below the rates charged not only by full-service brokerage houses but even by many discount brokers. The service helped promote the sale of home computers and transformed amateur Wall Street buffs into professional day traders.
Despite his impaired vision, Mr. Newcomb skied and hiked, and, while he couldn’t drive, he would rise well before dawn, tape a flashlight to the handlebars of his bike and pedal to work, arriving before the stock market opened in New York.
After the market tanked in the mid-1980s, the company re-emerged in 1991 as E-Trade Securities. It rapidly became a leader in online stock transactions.
By 1994, revenues had risen geometrically, from $850,000 only two years earlier to nearly $11 million. A business journal proclaimed the firm to be the fastest-growing private company in Silicon Valley. It went public as the E*Trade Group in 1996.
Mr. Newcomb, who had been the company’s chief system architect and vice president for research and development, retired with 2.4 million shares of the company in 1997, when the price per share was about $23.
Bernard Alan Newcomb was born on Nov. 10, 1943, in Scio, Ore., a city of fewer than a thousand residents south of Portland, to Lyle and Agnes Newcomb. His father worked as a janitor at Scio High School.
Bernard was born with clouded vision caused by congenital cataracts. He was known as Bing because when he was a toddler, that’s how his older brother pronounced his name.
He boarded at the Oregon School for the Blind in Salem through the second grade, returning home on weekends. He then attended Scio public schools through high school. He was his class’s valedictorian.
He consistently made the dean’s list at the College of Business at Oregon State University in Corvallis and graduated third in his class in 1965.
But because he was visually impaired, he recalled, he was rebuffed by recruiters for banks and accounting firms. A placement counselor at Oregon State persuaded General Electric to hire him in the data processing department of the company’s Hanford Works plant in Richland, Wash., where he worked for three years.
His marriage to Carol Kearney ended in divorce. In 2020, he married Gerry Lee Marshall. In addition to her, he is survived by a brother, Jerry, and a stepson, Forbes Marshall.
After he retired, Mr. Newcomb turned to philanthropy. He endowed the Bernard A. Newcomb Foundation and, with his wife, focused on improving the lives of people with disabilities, among other causes.
His $6.1 million gift to Oregon State in 1997 was the largest stock gift the university had ever received.
In 2000, Mr. Newcomb and his family donated $1.3 million to build a football field, track stadium and other athletic facilities at Scio High School — where, because of his vision, he had been relegated to being the team’s water boy.
He supported research through the All May See Foundation in the ophthalmology department at the University of California, San Francisco, where he also funded the Bernie and Gerry Newcomb Center for Innovative Eye Surgery. He received the Hellen Keller Achievement Award from the American Foundation for the Blind.
Mr. Porter, who has received much of the public credit for E*Trade, died in 2015.
The company was bought by the Wall Street brokerage house Morgan Stanley in 2020.
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