William C. Norris; Pioneer In Computer Development

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 23, 2006

William C. Norris, 95, the maverick founder of the once-giant mainframe computer firm Control Data Corp. who tried to use the power of business to engineer social change, died Aug. 21 in a nursing home in Bloomington, Minn. He had Parkinson's disease.

Mr. Norris built the company into the fourth-largest data processing business in the world, worth $5 billion in 1984. His company introduced the CDC 6600, the first commercial supercomputer, 10 times faster than anything on the market in 1964. He manufactured peripheral computer equipment, successfully sued IBM on antitrust grounds and launched the career of the legendary computer engineer Seymour Cray.

Mr. Norris was "one of the most successful, inventive and iconoclastic business leaders in this industry or any other," Washington Post reporter Peter Behr wrote in 1986. "Norris not only marched to a different drum, he created the company that built the drum -- and pounded out the beat for nearly three decades."

He was best known for immersing his company in projects such as building factories in slums after the mid-1960 urban riots, starting agricultural projects in Alaska, funding experimental wind farms and unsuccessfully leasing cars to former convicts.

Control Data was one of the first businesses to offer on-site day care for employees' children and invented the golden parachute for top managers, originally intended to ward off corporate takeovers. Another project, a computer-based education system known as Plato, anticipated the need for mainstream technology education but cost the company more than $1 billion.

Detractors thought such projects diverted management's attention from the company's main businesses, but Mr. Norris dismissed critics. "These programs are the future of the company," he told Computerworld magazine. "It has been a difficult strategy, but it's going to pay off handsomely."

He also created Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corp. in 1982, an unprecedented 20-year effort by nearly two dozen leading U.S. computer and semiconductor companies to collaborate on vital basic research.

Mr. Norris jousted with corporate raider Carl C. Icahn before a 1984 House subcommittee hearing on corporate takeovers, describing what he considered the "devastating" impact of hostile takeovers in societal and human terms. Mr. Norris proposed that regulators evaluate each merger based on its benefit to society.

When he retired in 1986, his social projects were widely criticized by money managers on Wall Street. The computer industry was undergoing a fundamental change, and Control Data, blindsided by foreign competitors and the emerging personal computer market, had problems with quality, delivery, overcapacity and over-diversification; at one point, it had 170 businesses under its umbrella.

Financial problems multiplied until losses reached more than $400 million for 1985. The 60,000-employee company was trimmed to 18,000 workers, plants closed and assets were sold. Control Data eventually split into two businesses, and Control Data Corp. no longer exists.

Mr. Norris was born in Red Cloud, Neb., and grew up on his family's homestead. He was educated in a one-room schoolhouse, where his favorite subject was physics, and he built a mail-order radio set, becoming a ham radio operator in high school.

He graduated with an electrical engineering degree from the University of Nebraska in the Depression year 1932 and worked for Westinghouse Corp. until joining the Navy during World War II. He worked on intercepting and cracking enemy radio transmissions and helped build calculators to break codes faster.

That work led to his postwar creation, Engineering Research Associates in St. Paul, Minn. He changed from single-task to general-purpose machines, and the Navy bought his first product.

In 1951, his company was bought by Remington Rand, which was bought by the Sperry Corp., and Mr. Norris ran its Univac division. He left in 1957 to found Control Data, and within three years, his brilliant engineer Cray built the 1604, the most powerful computer in the world at that time.

The gargantuan IBM initially was caught so off guard that its chairman, Thomas J. Watson Jr., complained in a 1963 memo that IBM had lost its leadership position in the industry to a company whose laboratory employed "only 34 people, including the janitor.''

Control Data grew rapidly in the 1960s, with 45,000 employees by the end of the decade. The company built faster and faster computers and ran head-on into a fierce competition with IBM.

Mr. Norris sued on antitrust grounds and in 1973 settled out of court in what was widely regarded as a victory. Cray left to found a business and took with him Control Data's reputation as a leading maker of supercomputers.

After Mr. Norris retired, he founded the William C. Norris Institute, now based at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

It focuses on using technology to improve education and created small-business incubators in the Twin Cities and a technical training program in Moscow for Russian entrepreneurs.

He was a recipient of the National Medal of Technology in 1986.

Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Jane Norris of Bloomington, and eight children.

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