Obituary: Computer pioneer Wendell Wilson, 92

  • Article by: JEAN HOPFENSPERGER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 10, 2014 - 7:31 PM

Long before there were desktop computers, engineer Wendell Wilson was part of a team developing refrigerator-size machines that were the granddaddies of modern computers.

He worked on Soviet code-breaking machines for the U.S. Navy during the early 1950s, then became a manager at Remington Rand Univac Corp. in St. Paul during a decade that saw the birth of a technology few imagined would revolutionize the world.

Wilson, 92, died July 3 at his home in Eden Prairie following a 35-year career in engineering.

“Those days, people thought it was the dawn of the atomic age, not the computer age,” said his son, Wendell Wilson, of Tucson, Ariz. “For Dad, the computer was a fascinating technical challenge. Nobody had a concept of what it would grow into.”

The elder Wilson, the son of John and Eugenia Wilson, grew up on a farm in Cottonwood County, moving to St. James after the family lost the farm during the Great Depression, the younger Wilson said. He graduated from St. James High School in 1941 and married Lorraine Haseman two years later.

He enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II, receiving training as a radio and radar technician. In 1944, he was assigned to the 10th Army Air Force in the China-Burma-India theater.

Based in eastern India near the Burmese border, Wilson was a radar navigator on aircraft that took soldiers over the Himalaya Mountains into battle against the Japanese in Burma and western China.

“It was often called the Aluminum Trail because of the wreckage of so many aircraft,” Wilson said. Members of the 315th Troop Carrier Squadron were awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation for “extraordinary heroism,” he said.

Wilson went on to earn an engineering degree at the University of Minnesota and moved his family to Bloomington, his son said. His first job was at Engineering Research Associates, a St. Paul firm developing some of the earliest computers.

The company, which had armed guards at all doors, was devising Soviet code-breaking machines, Wilson said. His father’s job was manager of product engineering, “which meant he had to figure out how to build working models of the computer components being dreamed up by the theoretical engineers,” he said.

Many of the nation’s top engineers were part of the team, Wilson said, including Seymour Cray, who later developed the supercomputer.

Wilson recalls visiting his dad’s workplace as a kid.

“I remember huge banks of computers with huge bundles of wires coming out of the back,” he said. “The transistorized chip had not been invented. Everything had to be done by vacuum tubes. And they were big.”

Wilson later was a manager at Honeywell Inc. in Hopkins, Transistor Electronics Corp. in Bloomington, president of Computron Corp./Minneapolis Scientific Controls Corp., and president of Simon Aerials Inc and Simon Access Ltd. in Milwaukee.

He retired in 1986 but continued consulting. After Lorraine died, he married Marilyn in 1994.

Growing up with a tech-savvy dad meant that the basement work bench held the usual hammers and wrenches but also oscilloscopes, boxes of vacuum tubes and various inventions, Wilson said.

It also meant the family nabbed one of the first TV sets on the market, and that it never was broken for long.

In retirement, Wilson was a volunteer for Meals on Wheels and a hospice program and a president of his townhouse association, said daughter Debra Olson of Plymouth. In addition to Wilson’s children, survivors include his wife, Marilyn, and sister, Ardis Schmitt of Colorado. Services have been held.

 

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