Home Computing Minnesota’s role as the computing heartland

Minnesota’s role as the computing heartland

CDC 6600, the first supercomputer built by Control Data Corporation of Minnesota.

In late 1945, J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly completed the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC).

ENIAC is considered to be the first programmable general-purpose electronic computer.

Programming the ENIAC involved physically setting switches and plugging cables into a patch panel to configure the computer for specific calculations.

This electronic computer consists of 40 nine-foot-high cabinets and thousands of vacuum tubes, capacitors, switches, and relays.

In 1946, Eckert and Mauchly founded EMCC (Eckert–Mauchly Computer Corporation).

In 1950, Remington Rand acquired EMCC, which later became the Univac Division of Remington Rand.

In 1951, the UNIVAC I (Universal Automatic Computer I), designed primarily by Eckert and Mauchly, was delivered to the US Census Bureau.

Meanwhile, in 1946, a group of former WWII US Navy cryptographers, including William C. Norris and Howard T. Engstrom, along with businessman John E. Parker, founded Engineering Research Associates (ERA) in St. Paul.

ERA applied its knowledge of electronic decryption and numerical analysis to become a pioneering computer company, developing technologies such as numerical computers and drum memory systems.

William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain demonstrated the first working transistor at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ, Dec. 23, 1947,

During the 1950s, transistors started to replace vacuum tubes, resulting in the creation of smaller, more efficient electronic devices and marking the beginning of a new era in high-performance computing.

The ERA 1101, a classified computer built by Engineering Research Associates for the US Navy and delivered in late 1950, marked a significant advancement in computing technology.

This once top-secret computing machine’s complexity and intricate arrangements were described in a Feb. 28, 1952, Minneapolis Morning Tribune newspaper article as a “labyrinth of tubes, wires, and ‘memory’ drums.”

The newspaper described how, like other early computers, sometimes referred to as “electronic brains,” the ERA 1101 could perform thousands of calculations and solve complex problems in seconds.

Remington Rand’s acquisition of Engineering Research Associates in 1952 had a significant impact on the computer industry.

It confirmed Minnesota as a key player in computing technology and furthered its emergence as a central hub for this industry.

Initially, ERA remained a separate division within Remington Rand at its St. Paul location, focused on scientific and military applications.

Through Remington Rand’s acquisition of ERA, it gained ownership of the ERA 1101 computer.

Remington Rand modified and rebranded the ERA 1101 as the UNIVAC 1101, a commercial computer that utilized and further popularized the stored-program concept, enabling electronic storage of computer programs in memory alongside data.

Unlike earlier computers, such as the ENIAC, electronically stored programs eliminated having to run patch cords and simplified programming and overall computing operations.

The UNIVAC 1101 paved the way for the widespread integration of computers into business settings.

The success of ERA, and later the UNIVAC division of Remington Rand, with the ERA/UNIVAC 1101, 1102, and 1103, firmly established Minnesota as a leading hub in the growing field of computing.

Sperry Corporation and Remington Rand merged June 30, 1955, to form Sperry Rand Corporation.

In late 1955 or early 1956, Sperry Rand’s St. Paul UNIVAC division (formerly ERA) began developing the UNIVAC Athena for the US Air Force’s missile guidance system.

The UNIVAC Athena, a computer with a 24-bit architecture, was used for accurate missile guidance by performing complex calculations with high precision, ensuring the real-time control of long-range missile trajectories.

Seymour Cray, a University of Minnesota electrical engineering graduate and ERA employee since 1950, was an influential contributor to developing the UNIVAC Athena missile guidance computer, later adapted for the Titan I ICBM.

In 1957, Cray and William Norris founded Control Data Corporation (CDC) in St. Paul.

By 1959, the Sperry Rand St. Paul Univac division had completed and delivered the first UNIVAC Athena computer.

In 1960, CDC opened its new industrial park in Bloomington and hired 1,000 new employees.

By the mid-1960s, a total of 23 UNIVAC Athena computers were produced and successfully deployed for military use.

In the early 1960s, Seymour Cray and Minnesota native James Thornton collaborated on the initial design of the CDC 6600 supercomputer at Control Data Corporation (CDC) in St. Paul, MN.

Seeking a quieter environment, Cray returned to his native roots in Chippewa Falls, WI, where he established a new CDC laboratory. This was where his team continued its work, completing the CDC 6600 project in 1964.

The CDC 6600 featured a central processing unit with a clock speed of 10 MHz.

Its architecture included multiple peripheral processors, enabling it to achieve a peak performance of about three million instructions per second (MIPS), making it the fastest computer in the world at that time.

The computer had a keyboard and a dual-screen console, and it used a Freon cooling system to manage heat.

The CDC 6600 maintained its position as the world’s fastest computer until 1969, when its successor, the CDC 7600, surpassed it.

Did the Minnesota heartland play a significant role as a leader in computing?

You betcha we did.



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