WWII Codebreakers Spurred Technology Growth in Twin Cities
John Parker’s factory in St. Paul was used to establish Engineering Research Associates in 1946. Photo by Engineering Research Associates (courtesy of Charles Babbage Institute Archives/University of Minnesota Libraries)

WWII Codebreakers Spurred Technology Growth in Twin Cities

A St. Paul event will recognize the major contribution of Engineering Research Associates.

While Minnesota’s medical technology prowess is recognized around the globe, the state’s early technological advancements were sometimes shrouded in secrecy.

On June 15, some of those early accomplishments will be brought into the sunlight when the Ramsey County Historical Society and local citizens install a commemorative plaque in St. Paul. They’ll gather at 3:30 p.m. at 1902 Minnehaha Ave. W. to hear speeches from seminal leaders in the computing and med tech industries.

In 1946, a company called Engineering Research Associates (ERA) was established at the Minnehaha site by several U.S. Navy codebreakers who helped the United States and its allies win World War II.

“They were mathematicians, physicists, engineers, and other specialists who interpreted German and Japanese electronic communications at a top-secret location in the Washington, D.C. area,” according to the Ramsey County Historical Society. “When the war ended, the Secretary of the Navy wanted to keep them together because he saw the group as an important national resource.”

St. Paul quickly entered the picture as a future workplace location for these experts in science, technology, engineering, and math long before STEM entered the lexicon as a common acronym.

A man named John Parker raised $220,000, and soon some of the brilliant people with key wartime experience moved to the Twin Cities to be based out of Parker’s St. Paul factory at 1902 Minnehaha. Parker, a director for Northwest Airlines, owned a glider business at that factory site, which was deactivated after World War II ended.

Consequently, he was able to start Engineering Research Associates from that location. “In doing so, he established the Twin Cities as one of the cradles of the computer industry, eventually making it the home for many thousands of jobs in more than 100 technology companies,” according to the county historical society.

The Minnesota Computing History Project chronicles the importance of Engineering Research Associates and the concentration of talent that was assembled at that early company.

“Engineering Research Associates was incorporated in January 1946 by mathematician Howard Engstrom, engineer William Norris, and other scientists who had worked together developing code-breaking machines for the U.S. Navy during World War II,” according to the project’s website. It identifies John Parker as an investment banker and one of the ERA founders, and that his building was used as ERA’s first factory and headquarters.

The site notes that several of ERA’s early projects were done for the U.S. military. “Such projects were often classified, so the achievements of Minnesota’s computing industry were largely hidden from the public eye,” the website said.

Initial ERA projects involved deciphering encrypted foreign military communications. “Like many early computing devices, ERA’s machines—such as Goldberg (1947) and Demon (1948)—were built to solve a specific code,” according to the Minnesota Computing History Projct. “Unlike many of their contemporaries, ERA’s machines used magnetic drum memory, which stored data on the outside of a large, rotating metal cylinder coated in magnetic material.” ERA’s magnetic drums were developed in partnership with 3M.

ERA produced a general-purpose computing machine in the late 1940s for the U.S. Navy. It was called ERA Atlas I.

While much of the public may have been unaware of the critical nature of ERA’s work, it played a foundational role in Minnesota’s technology and computer industries. ERA was a place where talent flourished, and its early employees went on to major leadership roles at other companies.

“A lineage of corporate growth emerged in 1952, when Remington Rand bought and combined ERA and Eckert Mauchly Computer Corp. in Philadelphia to form Remington Rand UNIVAC (RRU),” according to the Ramsey County Historical Society. “Four years later Sperry Corp. acquired Remington Rand and renamed the company as Sperry Rand. Its various computer activities were consolidated into the Univac Division. In 1986, Sperry and Burroughs Corp. merged to form Unisys, which then operated at 28 sites in the Twin Cities area.”

Norris left RRU in 1957 to found Control Data Corp. It became a leading computer manufacturer, and it spawned numerous spinoff businesses. “Seymour Cray, an employee of ERA and later Control Data, left Control Data in 1972 to form Cray Research, a company that dominated the supercomputer market well into the 1980s,” the historical society said. “The successes of these companies inspired local engineers to apply their technical expertise to medical products and create dozens of medical device companies.”

At the June 15 public event in St. Paul, the Ramsey County Historical Society is marking the historic role of Engineering Research Associates as well as celebrating the entrepreneurship that fueled Minnesota’s technology sector.

The roster of event speakers includes three widely known figures from the business community. Norb Berg was a key executive at Control Data and John Rollwagen was CEO at Cray Research.

Manny Villafana, who founded a series of medical technology companies, also will speak. Villafana, who has zero interest in retirement, is currently developing another company. He spoke about his plans in a recent TCB podcast.