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  • Events and Sightings
  • Chigusa Kita

Minnesota’s “Hidden History” in Computing

The Charles Babbage Institute has conducted a yearlong lecture series on the theme of “Minnesota’s Hidden History in Computing.” Historically, only people in the computer world know the story of Minnesota’s pioneering computing work. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and even into the 1980s, Minnesota was a leading region in the US for computing. Companies active there—Engineering Research Associates (ERA), Sperry-Rand Univac, Control Data, Cray, Honeywell, IBM Rochester, and others—were among the leaders in the industry, especially before the blossoming of the Route 128 minicomputer industry outside Boston and the microcomputer, software, and networking industries of Silicon Valley.

Minnesota’s history in computing has been hidden partly because it was overshadowed by these later developments. It was also hidden because many Minnesota companies had their greatest technical successes while working on classified military, aerospace, or cryptographic projects. Engineers, researchers, and business leaders could not talk openly to neighbors, family, or friends about the achievements of their classified work, so Minnesota’s prominence in the computer industry has been well known only to insiders.

In September 2008, CBI surveyed the state’s computing accomplishments, exploring whether Minnesota might reasonably have claimed the mantle that California’s Silicon Valley later did so successfully. Beginning in the 1950s, Minnesota companies pioneered magnetic storage technology, with local (ERA) patents supporting IBM’s great success with its magnetic-drum computer, the Model 650. Later in 1989, a Control Data spin-off contributed high-end technology to hard-drive giant Seagate. A prototypical computer industry also formed in the Twin Cities, with many characteristics that would later typify Silicon Valley, such as widespread employee stock ownership and substantial inter-firm mobility for engineers. Indeed, one distinctive characteristic of Silicon Valley (the term, already circulating on the East coast, was popularized by a journalist in 1971) is its close attention to its history. Silicon Valley celebrates its founders and their icons, such as the famous garage laboratory of William Hewlett and David Packard and even the homely storefront building that years ago housed Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory.

In October, CBI examined ERA’s founding and legacy (see Figure 1). Notably, ERA built and operated a stored program computer in mid-1950; the machine was designed, built, and tested in St. Paul; packed up and delivered in Washington D.C.; and then installed and working for the precursor of the National Security Agency by December of that year. Most historians have pointed to the two National Bureau of Standards machines (SEAC and SWAC), which were completed and went into operation between May and August of 1950, as the first US stored program computers. A history-minded employees’ group at Lockheed-Martin (the corporate successor) recently discovered a cache of historical engineering notebooks from ERA, stretching all the way back to 1950. These new documents—an exciting historical development—might help clarify ERA’s achievements as well as help the industry and historians understand just what it means to have a “working” computer.

ERA also helped create the modern computer industry, evolving into the Univac Division of Sperry-Rand (and later Unisys) as well as spawning the notable CDC and the Cray dynasty. The one-name answer to how a Minnesota company created the world’s fastest computers is, of course, Seymour Cray. Yet the story is richer than this, in large measure because Cray required substantial resources for his computer development projects. Organized in 1957, and financed with $1 stocks sold door to door, Control Data grew within a dozen years into a billion-dollar-a-year concern. Although it was always most famous for building supercomputers, such as the Control Data 6600, and for innovative educational computing with its Plato terminals, the company needed sizable resources to fund these prestige products. Steady revenues from its peripheral products, such as drum memories and tape drives, and later its data centers and services, gave Bill Norris and Seymour Cray the financial muscle for these projects. This talk also unveiled CBI’s interactive Google site for helping document photographs that are part of CBI’s massive CDC corporate archive. (Contact Stephanie H. Crowe,horow021@umn...


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