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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'