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Half a century ago, Minnesota was home to companies that built the fastest and most complex computers in the world.
Minnesota-based Control Data, Univac, and Cray Research dominated the field of supercomputers, the pinnacle of high-tech engineering.
Ted Adams wondered why the Twin Cities have lost their position as a major force in the computer industry. He sought answers from Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune community reporting project fueled by reader questions.
In 1967, Adams finished an electrical engineering master’s program at the University of Minnesota with a thesis on an algorithm for speeding up processing in computers. He took a medtech job in Milwaukee and then moved back to the Twin Cities to work at Medtronic in 1977.
By then, however, Control Data, Univac and Cray were either near or past their peak.
“I still wonder how three big industry leaders could go bankrupt as the computer market grew around the world,” Adams said.
The short answer is that Minnesota’s tech giants either didn’t understand — or didn’t have the financial incentive to embrace — the invention of the microprocessor, which happened in the early 1970s and made smaller computing devices possible.
Minnesota’s start in computers came at the end of World War II when businessman John E. Parker looked for something new to do with his factory in St. Paul that built gliders for the Air Force. Three veterans approached Parker looking for space to build primitive computer-like devices that the military could use to crack codes.
Parker and a few other investors decided to create a company for veterinarians. They called it Engineering Research Associates.
“ERA has created new computing machines, including one called the Demon to crack one of the Soviet Union’s codes,” Lee Schafer, a recently retired Star Tribune business columnist, wrote in 2017. “The Soviets just changed their code, and that pretty much ended ERA’s era of special machines, but it kept making programmable ones.”
Within a few years, though, Parker was finding it difficult to keep up with the money rival IBM was pouring into its computer division. He sold ERA in 1952 to Remington-Rand Inc. after meeting its president, recently retired Army General Douglas MacArthur. ERA got a rebranding: Univac.
In 1957, William Norris, who had been an early ERA employee, feared his career was coming to a standstill within Univac. With a few colleagues, Norris started a new company called Control Data, which would become the largest of dozens of spinoffs with roots in the ERA. At its peak, Control Data employed 25,000 people in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
One of those colleagues, Seymour Cray, became the principal designer of Control Data’s largest computers. In 1972 he left Control Data to start Cray Research.
At the time, IBM dominated the computer industry with business mainframes. But Minnesota companies produced the first supercomputers, built with far more electrical circuits for the toughest computing tasks.
“From Control Data in 1964 to Cray 2 [in 1985]Minnesota corporations controlled the whole category,” said Thomas Misa, a retired U of M professor and author of “Digital State,” a book on the state’s high-tech history. “They just dominated supercomputing. . Those were the fastest computers in the world.”
For example, supercomputers have been used for nuclear research, monitoring weather patterns and helping energy companies decide where to drill.
“Before all of this, Minnesota was primarily an agricultural, mining and lumber state. The electronics companies brought a whole new character to Minnesota,” said Donald Hall, who worked at Control Data before becoming an agent for exchange. Hall wrote a 2014 history of Control Data, “Generation of Wealth,” and is now leading an effort to install a historical marker at the original ERA factory at 1902 Minnehaha Ave. in Sao Paulo.
Hall argues in his book that the state’s first foray into high tech laid the groundwork for medical device makers and startups on the Twin Cities’ contemporary economic scene.
Misa, who headed the office of technology history at the U called the Charles Babbage Institute, notes that Parker and Norris et al in mid-century Minnesota relied on the mechanical, managerial and financial skills of the industries that preceded them.
“In the early part of the century, Minnesota had a huge railroad industry, an agricultural processing industry, all kinds of businesses that were important for the time,” Misa said. “You don’t just get a tech industry built from scratch.”
But those 1970s giants fell victim to what is now widely referred to as disruptive innovation, a concept popularized by the late Harvard professor Clayton Christensen. It’s what happens when a product rises from the bottom of an existing market and eventually rises in value to replace established competitors.
Surpassed by innovation
Supercomputer and mainframe makers, even IBM, were initially dismissive when a then-small memory chip maker called Intel Corp. built a “computer-on-a-chip” for a Japanese adding machine company.
The processing in mainframes and supercomputers happened in real electrical circuits: wires strung onto boards in quilt-like patterns. They took up a lot of space and were built into closets that, in some cases, filled the rooms.
Intel’s invention became known as the microprocessor. It was first used in digital watches and calculators but became much more prominent with the arrival of the personal computer in the 1970s.
After the microprocessor changed the value equation for computers, PC manufacturers like Dell, Compaq, and Apple grew much bigger than Control Data or Cray. The power of profit has passed to Intel and the company that made the basic operating software for PCs, Microsoft. They dominated computing until the rise of smartphones in the late 2000s.
Minnesota’s powerhouses “didn’t want to get into personal computers because it would threaten their pricing structure,” said Steve Alexander, the retired Star Tribune reporter who covered their disappearance in the 1990s and early 1990s. 2000.
Parts of Control Data live on. Its chip factories are up and running in Bloomington, bigger than ever, under new owners: Polar Semiconductor and SkyWater Technology. Its hard drive factory in Edina is a unit of Seagate. And its largest surviving business, Ceridian HCM Holding, which descends from a software unit, is just across the former Control Data headquarters near the Mall of America.
Univac became part of Unisys, then Lockheed-Martin, which closed the last remnants of Univac in Minnesota in 2012. And the latest of several companies carrying the Cray name was bought by Hewlett Packard Enterprise three years ago .
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