IT pioneer William Norris dies at 95

From wartime code-breaking to '60s idealism and '80s corporate clashes, Norris encapsulated the industry's history.
Written by Peter Judge, Contributor

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

A maverick, Norris scored many IT successes, including the groundbreaking CDC6600, which ran 10 times faster than any other commercial computer in 1964. He also helped make Control Data the world's fourth-biggest data-processing company, worth US$5 billion in 1984.

Before that, he worked on code-breaking for the U.S. 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, well-known. Even 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 antitrust suit against IBM, eventually winning US$600 million and acquiring a key IBM subsidiary, Service Bureau, that ran outsourced data processing for clients. At its peak, Control Data made disks and other peripheral equipment and successfully outmaneuvered IBM, aiming to make anything Big Blue 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 US$1 billion 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 US$400 million in 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 Technologies 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, Neb., and was a teenage radio ham before getting an electrical-engineering degree. Working on code-breaking calculators for the U.S. 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 Aug. 21 in a nursing home in Bloomington, Minn.

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