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.

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

News
people
News
people
Voices
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice
voices

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
News
i100
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

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes