William C. Norris


William C. Norris
Red Cloud, Nebraska, USA
Death date
National Medal of Technology
1985 IEEE Founders Medal
National Business Incubation Association Founders Award
2005 Ellis Island Medal of Honor


In 1985, William Charles Norris was awarded a National Medal of Technology by President Ronald Regan, citing "his substantial contributions to the development of digital computer technology, and for his innovative application of computers to societal needs." He cofounded the Control Data Corporation which created the CDC 6000, widely considered the first supercomputer. Bill was an avid fisherman who also loved to travel and work the N.Y. Times crossword puzzles.

William Charles Norris was born in Red Cloud, Nebraska., on 14 July 1911 with a twin sister, Willa, and grew up on his parents’ cattle, hog, and corn farm. He attended a one room country schoolhouse, followed by high school in Red Cloud, Nebraska. and. Fascinated early by physics, he built a mail-order radio set and became a ham radio operator. After graduating from the University of Nebraska in 1932 with a degree in electrical engineering, he joined the Naval Reserve during World War II. While working in Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, D.C., Norris worked on cracking codes using early computing devices. His first job with Westinghouse Corp. was followed by five years of service in the US Navy during World War II

After World War II, Norris helped found Engineering Research Associates (ERA) when he moved to St. Paul, which built early digital computers, mostly for the Navy. In 1951, ERA merged with early computer maker, Sperry Rand where he led the Univac division. Norris would leave the company to co-found Control Data Corp (CDC) in 1957, serving as President and CEO for twenty-nine years.

Control Data was a strong competitor against I.B.M., making machines that underpriced and outperformed I.B.M. products. In 1960, Control Data created the CDC 160A, considered by many to be the first minicomputer, a multiuser machine smaller than a mainframe. Data Controls’ Seymour Cray and his small team designed what would become the CDC 6600 in 1964, generally recognized as the first supercomputer. The CDC 6600 was capable of executing about one million instructions a second. Computer industry giant, I.B.M., employed a “ghost computer “strategy, claiming its upcoming the 360/91 system, would be more powerful and flexible than the 6600. Making delivery-date pledges and accepting orders, I.B.M. cut into potential Control Data Corp. business making the smaller company unable to book a single order for the 6600 for eighteen months.

Under his leadership, Control Data Corp. nurtured more than eighty companies based on new technologies developed by its employees. From 1988 through 2000, he chaired William C. Norris Institute. The nonprofit organization supported efforts in improving education through the use of technology and helped launch technology-based small companies in disadvantaged neighborhoods of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

In 1985, Norris received the IEEE Founders Medal. He also received the National Business Incubation Association Founders Award. In 1995, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Minnesota High Technology Council, and in 2001, he received a lifetime achievement Tekne Award from the Minnesota High Technology Association and Minnesota Technology Inc. In 2005, he received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor for outstanding contributions to the United States, and in 2008, he was posthumously inducted into the University of Nebraska’s Computing Hall of Fame.