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Digital State

The Story of Minnesota's Computing Industry

Thomas J. Misa

Publication Year: 2013

Accounts of the early events of the computing industry—the Turing machine, the massive Colossus, the ENIAC computer—are well-told tales, and equally well known is the later emergence of Silicon Valley and the rise of the personal computer. Yet there is an extraordinary untold middle history—with deep roots in Minnesota. From the end of World War II through the 1970s, Minnesota was home to the first computing-centered industrial district in the world.

Drawing on rare archival documents, photographs, and a wealth of oral histories, Digital State unveils the remarkable story of computer development in the heartland after World War II. These decades found corporations—concentrated in large part in Minnesota—designing state-of-the-art mainframe technologies, revolutionizing new methods of magnetic data storage, and, for the first time, truly integrating software and hardware into valuable products for the American government and public. Minnesota-based companies such as Engineering Research Associates, Univac, Control Data, Cray Research, Honeywell, and IBM Rochester were major international players and together formed an unrivaled epicenter advancing digital technologies. These companies not only brought vibrant economic growth to Minnesota, they nurtured the state’s present-day medical device and software industries and possibly even tomorrow’s nanotechnology.

Thomas J. Misa’s groundbreaking history shows how Minnesota recognized and embraced the coming information age through its leading-edge companies, its workforce, and its prominent institutions. Digital State reveals the inner workings of the birth of the digital age in Minnesota and what we can learn from this era of sustained innovation.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

Minnesota’s computing industry has such an obviously important history that it may seem odd that it has not been told before. The history of computing, a newly emerging historical field, took form when the “small band of digital pioneers” active originally in the 1940s and 1950s began a spirited debate over the priority claims of who built the first computer.1 Now there is a small bookshelf of works on the pioneering...


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pp. xiii-xvi

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Introduction: Minnesota Goes High-Tech

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pp. 1-16

Minnesota’s computer industry transformed the state’s economy and identity in the years following the Second World War. Part of the reason this story has never been told is that Minnesota’s computing companies, while world famous in their own way, were never in the business of selling computers directly to individual consumers. They lacked the brand appeal of “Intel Inside,” the pizzazz of a Microsoft product launch,...

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1. Philadelphia Story: Wartime Origins of Minnesota Computing

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pp. 17-44

In its early years, Minnesota’s computer industry was improbably but decisively yoked to the Philadelphia story. It’s odd that it turned out this way. The chronicles of digital computing often trace its protean beginnings across the Atlantic to Berlin, Manchester, Cambridge, or possibly even to London, if you credit Charles Babbage’s mechanical device that dazzled visitors to his fashionable salon in the nineteenth century....

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2. St. Paul Start-up: Engineering Research Associates Builds a Pioneering Computer

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pp. 45-70

The place in St. Paul where Minnesota’s computing industry was born neatly connected the state’s prairie history with its high-technology future. When you go there, even today, you can easily imagine the distant echo of lumber, cows, and horses—and you can readily hear the railroads, pounding out their rhythms of commerce and industry. The state’s pioneering computer factory was a half mile from the Midway...

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3. Corporate Computing: Univac Creates a High-Tech Minnesota Industry

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pp. 71-98

Minnesota’s computing destiny, during much of the 1950s, was decided at Remington Rand’s corporate headquarters in Connecticut. Already before the war, James Rand Jr. had successfully stitched together the typewriter and firearm branches of his family’s businesses, all the while keeping a weather eye out for fame and publicity. When a granite-faced Tudor mansion originally built by a U.S. Steel president came...

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4. Innovation Machine: Control Data’s Supercomputers, Services, and Social Vision

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pp. 99-134

A calendar from 1957 brims with events that reshaped the landscape of computing in Minnesota and the world. The events rippled outward from the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik. The tiny radio beeps that Sputnik sent down seemed ominous to many Americans, who reasoned that if the Soviets launched satellites up into space it wouldn’t be too long until they might aim missiles down on North America....

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5. First Computer: Honeywell, Partnerships, and the Politics of Patents

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pp. 135-162

For years Honeywell was Minnesota’s largest private-sector employer and a mainstay of its high-technology economy. It was one of several established American electronics companies, including General Electric and RCA, that launched themselves into the computing industry with the aim of capitalizing on their electronics savvy and manufacturing prowess. These three companies enjoyed dominant positions in...

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6. Big Blue: Manufacturing and Innovation at IBM Rochester

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pp. 163-188

IBM was the first computer company to consciously choose Minnesota as a base of operations. The state’s other computing ventures had arrived somewhat by happenstance or grown organically as start-ups or spin-offs. Back in 1946, the location of the Engineering Research Associates was largely a matter of luck, when the navy intelligence officers in Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio, recruited John Parker and his...

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7. Industrial Dynamics: Minnesota Embraces the Information Economy

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pp. 189-218

Industrial districts the world over are dynamic and unstable spaces, always in motion and never staying the same for long. This was the case in the classic districts in Manchester or Sheffield during the British industrial revolution, the urban industrial districts set up in Chicago and New York that thrived during the heyday of twentiethcentury manufacturing, as well as the latter-day high-technology districts of...

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8. High-Technology Innovation: Medical Devices and Beyond

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pp. 219-232

The emergence of Minnesota’s industrial district, traced in this book, remains vital to the state’s economy and future prospects. This chapter ties together the material in earlier chapters with a detailed assessment of the state’s transition from a computercentered industrial district to a medical-device-oriented one. It does so with firm-level data on 245 Minnesota companies active in computing across the decades spanning...

Appendix: Employment in Minnesota Computing, 1980–2011

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pp. 233-244


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pp. 245-274


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pp. 275-288


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pp. 289-300

About the Author

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p. 301-301

E-ISBN-13: 9780816688357
E-ISBN-10: 0816688354
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816683321

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2013