William C. Norris

Social entrepreneur founder of CDC


William Charles Norris, businessman and social entrepreneur: born Red Cloud, Nebraska 14 July 1911; product marketer, Westinghouse 1934-41; vice-president, Engineering Research Associates 1946-51; staff, Univac Computers 1951-57; chief executive officer, Control Data Corporation 1957-86; married 1944 Jane Malley (six sons, two daughters); died Bloomington, Minnesota 21 August 2006.

In 1957 William C. Norris established the Control Data Corporation (CDC) to manufacture mainframe computers. During the 1960s CDC, which made the biggest and fastest computers in the world, was one of only a handful of firms that competed successfully with the computer-giant IBM, which dominated the world market for computers. In the late 1970s, however, Norris set in train a series of ill-conceived diversifications, some of which were socially motivated; CDC lost its direction, and ultimately went into a long decline.

William Charles Norris was born in Red Cloud, Nebraska, in 1911 and grew up on his parents' farm. He was educated in a one-room schoolhouse; his favourite subject was physics and he became a radio amateur. He graduated in electrical engineering from the University of Nebraska in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression. Following the death of his father, he worked on the family farm for two years before landing a job with Westinghouse, where he marketed scientific equipment.

During the Second World War, Norris obtained a commission in the US Navy and was assigned to the Communications Supplementary Activity - Washington (CSAW), America's famed code-breaking operation. There he worked on communications and computing machinery. At the end of the war, in 1946, he joined colleagues in founding Engineering Research Associates (ERA) in St Paul, Minnesota, to undertake defence contracts for the navy.

By the early 1950s, ERA was also designing computers for the commercial marketplace, and the need for additional capital resulted in the firm selling out to Remington Rand, which merged it into its Univac computer division. Norris eventually became head of Remington Rand's (later Sperry Rand) computer operation.

In 1957, Norris broke away from Sperry Rand to form CDC with funds from private investors. At CDC, the computer designer Seymour Cray created a number of computers, achieving real success with the giant model 6600 in 1964. For the next decade, CDC dominated the niche market for supercomputers, until Cray broke away to form Cray Research in 1972. At its peak, CDC employed over 50,000 people.

Norris was profoundly affected by the 1967 inner-city riots. Although he was wealthy, he believed that personal philanthropy was insufficient to address poverty and urban decay. Rather, in what came to be called social entrepreneurship, he believed that it was possible to use the power of corporations to improve the lives of the disadvantaged.

He located CDC factories in areas of chronic unemployment and deprivation, and was among the first to establish child-care facilities to enable women to return to work. His ideas were described in his 1983 book New Frontiers for Business Leadership.

Norris used CDC's soaring stock and reputation to establish numerous subsidiary operations in computer services, disc drive manufacture and socially beneficial enterprises. His best-known, and the most commercially unsuccessful, venture was the Plato system in the mid-1970s. Plato was intended to help with the rapid retraining of adults through computer-based learning centres, and Norris believed it would ultimately generate half of CDC's revenues. However, its mainframe-based technology was too expensive for the market, and after massive losses Plato's major operations were shut down.

Like all traditional computer manufacturers, CDC was in turmoil in the 1980s with the rise of the personal computer, which fundamentally transformed the computer business, and CDC's difficulties were intensified by many poorly functioning subsidiary companies. Norris stepped down as CEO in 1986, after which CDC rationalised its operations, resulting in massive layoffs.

In retirement, Norris established several venture funds for enterprises delivering socially beneficial products and services. In 1988, with the help of CDC, he established the William C. Norris Institute for entrepreneurial activities in education and educational technology. The Institute now operates within the University of St Thomas, Minneapolis.

Norris was presented with the National Medal of Technology by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, and received numerous honours from industry and professional associations and awards for social entrepreneurship.

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