Edward Doyle “Pete” Zimmer, among the scientists and engineers and veterans from WWII who started the computer industry in Minnesota, died last month in Roseville at age 93.
Zimmer started his career at the pioneering computer company Engineering Research Associates (ERA). That St. Paul-based company was acquired by Remington Rand and later became Sperry Rand, and each were giants in the postwar days of the early computer industry here and elsewhere.
Frustrated with some of the autonomy they’d lost under new corporate owners, many of those employees who first worked at ERA left to form a technology startup company, Control Data Corp., in 1957.
Under the leadership of William Norris and the technical expertise of Seymour Cray, Control Data grew into one of the largest and most influential companies in Minnesota. Those earliest employees included sales, finance and support staff but also key technical people like Frank Mullaney, Bill Keye, Bob Kisch, Howard Sheckels and Robert Perkins. Zimmer joined in September of 1957 and his badge number was 13. He was the last survivor of that earliest group.
The company would eventually employ 65,000, including 5,000 part-time workers. Control Data’s success attracted talented people to the region and influenced other computer, technology and financial companies in Minnesota. And a number of other successful startup companies grew out of their association with Control Data.
Zimmer grew up in Rapid City and Onida, S.D. His parents owned and operated the city newspaper in Onida. Zimmer’s son Bill said his father enlisted in the Navy the day before his 18th birthday because it had the best electronics program.
He served in the Navy from 1943 to 1946 and earned a B.S. in electrical engineering from the University of Minnesota in 1950. He joined ERA and eventually became a vice president and chief engineer at Control Data.
Zimmer oversaw several important projects at Control Data, according to Doug Larson, another early employee. He was the computer guidance project engineer for the submarine-launched Polaris ballistic missile system and was in charge of Control Data’s 3300 line of computers. After Cray developed the 6600 computer at his lab in Chippewa Falls, Wis., it was Zimmer and his team that put it into production at Control Data’s Arden Hills manufacturing plant. “He was a crackerjack of an engineer,” Larson said.
Norb Berg, Control Data’s first human resources director who rose to deputy chairman, recalled Zimmer. “He was one of the rocks the company was founded on,” Berg said. “Pete was a good engineer and well-respected leader.”
By 1966, Control Data was no longer a small startup, and several early employees resigned that year, including Zimmer.
Zimmer then formed his own consulting company and served on the board of directors of three technology companies, said his son Bill. “He was a technology adopter. We always had the first of everything,” Bill Zimmer said.
He taught his kids coding and BASIC programming at home and was a technology futurist. “He told people, way before anybody thought it made any sense, there are going to be computers in everybody’s home,” Bill Zimmer said. “As people started getting them he was especially helpful with his peer group. … He kind of became the IT guy for a lot of seniors, neighbors and friends.”
Zimmer is survived by his wife, Marjorie, whom he married in 1954; children Jon, Debra, Bill and Peter; and five grandchildren.
A memorial service is planned for 1 p.m. March 23 at Cherrywood Pointe of Roseville at Lexington.