Sperry Rand Corporation, Engineering Research Associates (ERA) Division records1949-1965
18 Linear Feet
The work of this group was coordinated by Commander Howard T. Engstrom, who before the war had been a professor of mathematics at Yale University; and Lt. Commander William C. Norris, former sales manager for Westinghouse. After the war, the Navy made an effort to keep this team together and offered several members civil service appointments. However, Engstrom and Norris preferred to go into business for themselves. In the fall of 1945, they began searching for financial backing, but this proved to be difficult because they were unable to discuss their classified projects with potential investors. Finally, John Parker, a Wall Street investment banker and former head of Northwestern Aeronautical Corporation, provided the necessary capital. In January 1946, Engineering Research Associates was formed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where John Parker was based.
In the fall of 1946, ERA received its first major contract from the Office of Naval Research to compile a report on “High Speed Computing Devices”. This report, which became the definitive study of the infant state of computing, was later published in book form by McGraw Hill. During this project, ERA personnel was given access to classified government reports and worked with computer pioneers John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, inventors of the ENIAC, and John von Neumann, of Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study.
ERA was dependent on government funded cost-plus--fixed-fee contracts. In August 1947, it began work for the Navy on Task 13 - a project to design a general all-purpose stored-program computer. During this project ERA developed the first magnetic storage drum; the technology upon which the next two generations of computers was based. In October, 1950, ERA completed work on the Atlas computer - America's first electronic stored-program computer. The Atlas with its 2,700 vacuum tubes was capable of running twenty-four hours a day with only 10% of the time allotted for maintenance.
ERA hoped to establish a niche in the private sector. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, it worked with TWA to develop an automated airline reservation system. It also had a number of contracts with Prudential Insurance Company. However, the Navy was its primary customer. This left it vulnerable to Washington politics. Even though it was recognized as the most advanced computer company in the world, Drew Pearson's 1951 column in the “Washington Merry Go Round” charged Norris and Engstrom had used war time government connections to advance their private business. Pearson charged that ERA's Navy contracts represented a clear conflict of interest and were not subjected to competitive bidding. By 1952, under considerable political pressure, ERA merged with the Remington Rand Corporation. At first it operated as a semi-autonomous division, but after the 1955 Sperry merger, it was consolidated with the Eckert-Mauchly division of Sperry Rand and became part of Sperry-UNIVAC. William Norris never found this to be a satisfactory relationship. In 1957, Norris left Sperry to establish the Control Data Corporation. Later that year, the ERA people who remained were given a good deal more autonomy when Sperry created its St. Paul Research Division led by Sidney Rubens and Arnold Cohen. This division's primary job was to develop computer systems for the military and it played a crucial role in developing the command and control systems for the U. S.'s International Continental Ballistic Missiles and early space satellites. In 1960, what was left of the ERA group became Sperrys' Military Division, which was renamed the Aerospace Division. Accession 1952 - archives of the Aerospace Division - contains records from these periods.
Scope and Content
Other projects described include ERA's Rapid Selector, airline reservation system, and high speed printer. There are several reports which document some of the early work that was done with transistors and efforts to incorporate this into the computers that were being developed during the late 1950s.
The records make it clear that much of ERA's research and development work was focused on the problem of magnetic core storage. There was an attempt to coordinate these activities with the work being done at the Philadelphia research laboratory (Eckert-Mauchly division) and the Norwalk, Ct., laboratory. However, William Norris' correspondence shows that there was a good deal of competition between the Eckert-Mauchly and ERA people which inhibited progress on many projects.
Language of Materials
Finding Aid & Administrative Information
- Sperry Rand Corporation, Engineering Research Associates (ERA) Division records
- Michael H. Nash, 1994
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