Digital State: The Story of Minnesota’s Computing Industry

by Thomas J. Misa. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. $29.95 (paperback).  xiv + 299 pp. illustrations, index. ISBN 978-0-8166-8332-1.

One can easily find a shelf-full of books that describe the history, origins, and current state of digital computing activity in Silicon Valley, California. There are similar, though fewer, studies of the Route 128 tech region around Boston, and the military-industrial activities concentrated in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Thomas Misa, professor of the History of Science and Technology and director of the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota, has added to these studies with a thorough and well-researched look at the history of computing technology in Minnesota. The Twin Cities had, of course, a long history of supporting advanced technologies, but agriculture, railroads, and mining belong to an earlier era. The University of Minnesota ranked among the top state institutions in the country, but it had none of the cachet of MIT or Stanford – universities about which another shelf-full of books have been written. Misa addresses this issue head-on, noting that computing requires a foundation in pure and applied mathematics, and in electrical engineering, but it also requires skills in metalworking, precision machine-tooling, quality control of manufacturing, and other classical, tacit skills that these older industries supported in abundance.

Thus the book has two foci. One is a fascinating narrative of the origins, history, and later decline of the region’s computing activity, from its beginnings at Engineering Research Associates, to the rise of UNIVAC, Honeywell, Control Data Corporation, Cray Research, and IBM’s Rochester, Minnesota facilities. The other is an examination of what Misa calls “industrial districts,” in an attempt to untangle the complex web of factors including the tacit skills mentioned above, the presence of a strong research university, as well as support by local and state governments, local banking, finance, and real estate. Politicians who wish to replicate the magic of Silicon Valley in their home districts or states (or even nations) would do well to study this book carefully.

The books’ first focus, a narrative of the rise and fall of the various companies, benefits from Misa’s access to the voluminous archives, oral histories, and other records amassed by the Charles Babbage Institute over the past decades. Here one should give credit to the Institute’s early leaders, especially to Erwin Tomash, the “guiding spirit” behind the Institute (to whom the book is dedicated), to its first permanent director Arthur Norberg, and to its several archivists, who built up and maintain this world-class resource. Many of these companies have been examined in depth by other authors, but Misa adds a number of fascinating details, and he is careful to place the work done in the Twin Cities in the context of what was going on elsewhere.

Among the most fascinating are Misa’s examination of the relationship between Engineering Research Associates in St. Paul and the computing done in Philadelphia by Eckert and Mauchly.  Another is the relationship with the U.S. government’s code-breaking activities, at first in the District of Columbia, with critical machinery built by National Cash Register in Dayton, Ohio. Later the activity was centered at Fort Meade, Maryland, where the two-way flow of information may even have led to specific binary operations placed in the op-codes of mainframe computers. Many of the details of this activity remain classified, but the relationship clearly was a major factor in the local story.  Likewise the story of the dispute between Honeywell and Sperry Rand, over the patent on the computer, is given a fresh treatment, viewing it from the Minnesota point of view.

This book is recommended reading for anyone interested in the role of digital technology in a local economy, with obvious implications for the economic health of the nation.  Minnesota succeeded very well, although it never got the attention from the popular press that other regions received. Compare the cult of personality that surrounded Apple Inc.’s Steve Jobs to the modesty of Seymour Cray, whose single-minded obsession with computer performance drove the fortunes of several Minnesota firms as he moved from one to another. The region was able to adapt as the industry moved from vacuum tubes to transistors to integrated circuits, as well as from hardware platforms to software and services. But eventually the region fell victim to the transformation of computing into a cheap commodity, where profit margins on a piece of advanced technology are only slightly more than the margins on Minnesota-produced breakfast cereal. Are there lessons to be learned from this experience? Yes, but they are not simple ones.

Paul E. Ceruzzi

Smithsonian Institution

Washington, DC