Minnesota companies once dominated the supercomputer industry. What happened? > Minnesota

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Half a century ago, Minnesota was home to companies that built the world’s fastest and most complex computers.

Minnesota-based companies Control Data, Univac, and Cray Research dominated the supercomputer space, the pinnacle of high-tech technology.

Ted Adams wondered why the Twin Cities were losing their position as a major force in the computer industry. He sought answers from Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune’s community reporting project driven by reader questions.

In 1967, Adams completed a master’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota with a thesis on an algorithm to speed up processing in computers. He took a medical engineering job in Milwaukee, then returned to the Twin Cities in 1977 to work at Medtronic.

By this time, however, Control Data, Univac and Cray had peaked or passed their peak.

“I still wonder how three great industry leaders failed while the world computer market was growing,” said Adams.

The short answer is that Minnesota’s tech giants either didn’t understand the invention of the microprocessor, which happened in the early 1970s and made smaller computing devices possible — or they didn’t have the financial incentive to embrace it.

Post-war code breaking

Minnesota’s start in computing came at the end of World War II when businessman John E. Parker was looking for something new to do with his factory in St. Paul, which made gliders for the Army Air Force. Three veterans approached Parker looking for space to build primitive computing devices that the military could use to crack codes.

Parker and several other investors agreed to set up a company for the vets. They called it Engineering Research Associates.

“ERA created new computing machines, including one called the Demon, to crack one of the Soviet Union’s codes,” Lee Schafer, the recently retired Star Tribune economics columnist, wrote in 2017. “The Soviets just changed their code, and that was pretty much it Gone is the era of ERA’s special machines, but programmable machines have been developed.”

In just a few years, however, Parker was finding it difficult to keep up with the money that rival IBM was pouring into its computer division. He sold ERA to Remington-Rand Inc. in 1952 after meeting its chairman, recently retired Army General Douglas MacArthur. ERA got a new name: Univac.

In 1957, William Norris, one of ERA’s early employees, feared that his career at Univac was about to hit an impasse. With some colleagues, Norris formed a new company called Control Data, which would become the largest of dozens of spin-offs with roots in ERA. At its peak, Control Data employed 25,000 people in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

One of these colleagues, Seymour Cray, became the lead designer of Control Data’s largest computers. In 1972 he left Control Data to found Cray Research.

At the time, IBM dominated the computer industry with enterprise mainframes. But Minnesota companies made the first supercomputers, which featured far more electrical circuitry for the most difficult computational tasks.

“Dominated Supercomputing”

“From Control Data 1964 to the Cray 2 [in 1985], Minnesota companies controlled that whole category,” said Thomas Misa, a retired U-of-M professor and author of Digital State, a book about the state’s high-tech history. “They just dominated supercomputing. These were the fastest computers in the world.”

For example, supercomputers have been used for nuclear research, tracking weather patterns, and helping energy companies decide where to drill.

“Prior to all of this, Minnesota was primarily a farming, mining, and logging state. Electronics companies have given Minnesota a whole new personality,” said Donald Hall, who worked at Control Data before becoming a stockbroker. Hall wrote a Control Data story, Generation of Wealth, in 2014 and is now leading efforts to create a historical marker at the original ERA facility at 1902 Minnehaha Ave. to install in St. Paul.

Hall argues in his book that the state’s early foray into high-tech laid the groundwork for medical device manufacturers and start-ups in the contemporary Twin Cities business scene.

Misa, who headed the Tech History Office at U called the Charles Babbage Institute, notes that in mid-century Minnesota, Parker and Norris and others relied on mechanical, managerial, and financial know-how from industries that preceded them .

“At the beginning of the century, Minnesota had a huge railroad industry, an agricultural processing industry, and all kinds of businesses that were important at the time,” Misa said. “You don’t just build a tech industry from scratch.”

But these giants of the 1970s fell victim to what is now commonly referred to as disruptive innovation, a concept popularized by the late Harvard professor Clayton Christensen. This is what happens when a product starts at the bottom of an existing market and eventually increases in value to replace established competitors.

Overtaken by innovations

Supercomputer and mainframe manufacturers, even IBM, were initially dismissive when a then small memory chip maker called Intel Corp. built a “computer-on-a-chip” for a Japanese calculator company.

Processing in mainframes and supercomputers happened in actual electrical circuits—wires stretched across boards in patterns resembling quilts. They took up a lot of space and were built into closets, some of which filled the room.

Intel’s invention became known as the microprocessor. It was first used in digital watches and calculators, but gained far more prominence with the introduction of the personal computer later in the 1970s.

After the microprocessor changed the equation of values ​​for computers, PC manufacturers like Dell, Compaq and Apple became far bigger than Control Data or Cray. Profit power shifted to Intel and the company that made the basic operating software for personal computers, Microsoft. They dominated the computing world until the advent of smartphones in the late 2000s.

The Minnesota computer giants “didn’t want to get into personal computers because it would jeopardize their pricing structure,” said Steve Alexander, the retired Star Tribune reporter who covered their decline in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Parts of the control data live on. Its chip fabs are running in Bloomington, larger than ever, under new owners – Polar Semiconductor and SkyWater Technology. Its Edina hard drive factory is a Seagate entity. And its largest surviving company, Ceridian HCM Holding, which grew out of a software unit, is directly across from Control Data’s former headquarters near the Mall of America.

Univac became part of Unisys, then Lockheed-Martin, which closed the last vestiges of Univac in Minnesota in 2012. And the last of several companies to bear Cray’s name was bought by Hewlett Packard Enterprise three years ago.

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