WWII codebreakers helped launch computer industry in St. Paul

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Thanks to a group of World War II codebreakers, St. Paul will be cemented in history as one of the birthplaces of modern computing technology this week.

Born from the U.S. Navy codebreakers, a group known as Engineering Research Associates was in existence for only six years in St. Paul but would go on to have a global impact across computer technology, electronic communication and the medical device industry.

The formation of ERA paved the way for entrepreneurs in computer technology to build up their businesses into nationally recognized corporations, said Don Hall, author of a book on the subject titled “Generation of Wealth: The Rise of Control Data and How it Inspired an Era of Innovation and Growth in the Upper Midwest.”

“I think ERA should be acknowledged just like any other important artifact,” said Hall, who is financing a commemorative plaque that will be unveiled at ERA’s original St. Paul location on June 15. “I am hoping to leave the marker for future generations,” he said.

The formation of ERA

During WWII, the U.S. Navy created a team of codebreakers made up of mathematicians, physicists and engineers tasked with interpreting German and Japanese electronic communications.

“They were at the forefront of computer technology, but couldn’t tell anyone about it because it was top secret,” Hall said.

After the war, the group of codebreakers was seen as an important national resource and with the help of John Parker, a Navy man and director of St. Paul-based Northwest Airlines, raised the funds to establish ERA in 1946.

The group’s headquarters, located at 1902 W. Minnehaha Ave., was converted from Parker’s glider business, which went out of business when the war ended, Hall said.

Parker brought core people from the codebreakers to St. Paul and would go on to become the president of ERA, Hall said.

Although the group was bought just six years later in 1952, it led to the creation of industry-leading technology firms like Unisys, Cray Research and Control Data to name a few.

‘Minnesota was the Silicon Valley’

A group of World War II codebreakers formed Engineering Research Associates in St. Paul after the war to continue their work in computer technology and electronic communications. The group went on to inspire part of modern-day computing technology and will be recognized at their original location in West St. Paul on June 15, 2023. (Courtesy of Lowell Benson)

In 1952, ERA was bought by Remington Rand, a business machine manufacturer known for its typewriters, and combined with Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corp. to form Remington Rand UNIVAC.

Sperry Corp., an electronics company, went on to acquire Remington Rand UNIVAC around 1956, renaming it Sperry Rand, according to a news release from the Ramsey County Historical Society.

About 30 years later, Sperry combined with Burroughs Corp., a business equipment manufacturer, to form Unisys, an information technology company that still has a foothold in Eagan.

“Minnesota was the Silicon Valley for the world for a while,” said Chad Roberts, president of the Ramsey County Historical Society. “Between 1946 to 1952, it made a huge impact.”

William Norris, an early member of ERA, founded supercomputer firm Control Data in 1957, said Hall, who went on to work for the corporation.

Seymour Cray, another member of ERA and an employee of Control Data, went on to start Cray Research in 1972, a supercomputer company that would later be acquired by Hewlett Packard.

“Seymour Cray is the Paul Bunyan of the supercomputer industry,” said Hall. ”Paul Bunyan was mythical, but Seymour was a real person and he was a genius.”

While working for Control Data, Cray designed the world’s most powerful scientific computers five times over, Hall said.

“The residue we still enjoy is the medical device industry,” Hall said.

Earl Bakken, one of the founders of Medtronic in Minnesota, would not have been able to raise money in the public market in the 1960s had it not been for Control Data and the enthusiasm in the stock market, Hall said.

Dave Beal, a former Pioneer Press columnist who first wrote about Hall in 2005, said that around the 1960s, more than 100 companies went public.

Today, Bloomington is home to four companies with significant lineage tracing back to Control Data: Ceridian, a software company; SkyWater Technology, a semiconductor and technology company; Polar Semiconductor, a semiconductor manufacturer; and SeaGate Technology, a data storage company.

“We are hoping that people in the Twin Cities and Minnesota will be reminded of the importance of businesses starting up, getting investor support and growing to become significant parts of the economy,” Beal said. “It’s not the government that creates these jobs, it’s the entrepreneurs and investors.”

Missing piece

The exterior of a white and green building.
A glass studio at 1902 Minnehaha Avenue West occupies one of the buildings where the Engineering Research Associates computer firm once resided from 1945 to 1955 in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood. The firm spawned more than 40 computer companies including Sperry Univac, Control Data and Cray Research. This photo was taken Saturday, June 15, 2019. (Deanna Weniger / Pioneer Press)

The plaque to be unveiled on June 15 is not the first commemorating the technological advancements born out of Minnesota.

In 1986, a plaque was installed at the same location to celebrate 40 years since the start of ERA.

“The original plaque disappeared,” said Beal, “or it was stolen.” The new plaque will go inside the fence that surrounds the property.

“We’d be curious to know where it went,” Roberts said about the original plaque. “We were an early, significant piece of the computer industry.”

Engineering Research Associates plaque unveiling

  • What: Unveiling of a plaque commemorating one of the birthplaces of modern computing technology
  • When: 3:30 p.m. Thursday, June 15
  • Where: 1902 W. Minnehaha Ave., St. Paul

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