IT pioneer Norris dies

From war-time code breaking and the birth of supercomputing to 1960s idealism and 1980s corporate clashes, William Norris encapsulated the history of the IT industry
Written by Peter Judge, Contributor

William C Norris, who founded the giant mainframe company Control Data and made the first commercial supercomputer, has died aged 95.

A maverick, Norris scored many IT successes, including the ground-breaking CDC6600 — 10 times faster than any other commercial computer in 1964 — and making Control Data the world's fourth biggest data-processing firm, worth $5bn in 1984.

Before that, he worked on code breaking for the US Navy in World War II and ran the Univac division of Sperry.

Less well-known were his efforts in social reform, which saw Control Data offer the then-unheard-of amenity of day care for the children of employees. The company also became involved in projects to build factories in riot-hit slum areas in the 1960s. Outside Control Data, Norris promoted wind farms, agriculture schemes in Alaska, and projects to lease cars to former convicts.

The CDC6600 was an iconic device, which scared IBM and made the name of engineer Seymour Cray, who built it with a 34-man team. With hundreds of engineers, IBM was unable to match the product and attempted to kill it with "FUD" (fear, uncertainty and doubt), promising and failing to deliver a faster model in its System/360 mainframe line.

Norris filed an anti-trust suit against IBM, and eventually won $600m and acquired a key IBM subsidiary, Service Bureau Corporation, that ran outsourced data processing for clients. At its peak, Control Data made disks and other peripheral equipment and successfully outmanoeuvred IBM, aiming to make anything IBM did but 10 percent faster and 10 percent cheaper.

In 1972, Cray left to form his own company, whose products rapidly seized the laurels for the fastest computers on the market.

The boom in mainframes in the 1960s and 1970s allowed Control Data to fund big projects, such as the $1bn it spent building a computer-based education system called Plato, as well as Norris' social projects.

As the grim realities of the 1980s began to bite, Norris argued passionately against the social devastation caused by hostile takeovers, proposing that regulators approve mergers based on their benefit to society. The writing was on the wall for Control Data, however; it posted $400m losses in 1985 and sacked two-thirds of its workers.

Control Data sold off its successful hard disk business in 1988, and saw it bought up by Seagate in 1989. The rest of the company suffered one of the most ignominious fates in the IT industry when it became a subsidiary of BT's Global Services, known as Syntegra (USA).

Norris grew up in Red Cloud, Nebraska and was a teenage radio ham, before getting an electrical engineering degree. Working on code-breaking calculators for the US Navy during the war, he was in at the start of the computer industry, and set up the Navy-funded ERA unit after the war. ERA was bought by Rand, which was bought by Sperry, which put Norris in charge of its commercial computing division, Univac.

Norris died on 21 August, in a nursing home in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Editorial standards