History takes strange turns, sometimes bestowing remarkably good fortune on a country, state or region. In 1946, a group of highly skilled Navy codebreakers from World War II left a top-secret location in Washington, D.C., and reassembled at an empty factory in St. Paul. This site became a birthplace of the computer industry, and the effects are still with us as technology has come to rank as one of Minnesota's leading economic sectors. The ramifications of this small beginning are almost beyond measure.
The codebreakers' enterprise, known as Engineering Research Associates (ERA), spawned two major corporate lineages: Unisys (Univac Division) and Control Data Corp. In the 1980s, each had more than 20,000 well-paid employees in Minnesota, mostly in the Twin Cities area.
In 1972, a group of employees left Control Data and formed Cray Research, a company that became the unquestioned world leader in supercomputers. These major corporate successes led many individuals to form new companies and did much to turn the region into a cauldron of innovation and prosperity.
Today, elements of the computer industry remain, but the area is best known for its world leadership in medical technology. Much of this new success was inspired by and evolved from the prosperity and creative ferment of that earlier era. Probably just as important was the example of bold leadership from ERA's founders, and the trust of their spouses and children. It was a rare explosion of economic activity, seen in only a handful of other metro areas. It all began so improbably that some might even have called it a mystical gift from the gods.
At 3:30 p.m. on June 15, the Ramsey County Historical Society will celebrate the ERA saga by marking the company's original site (at 1902 W. Minnehaha Av. in St. Paul) with a commemorative plaque. The ERA story has been laid out before in the media, in books and in the archives at the Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota, but it seems particularly appropriate — in a time of such economic doubt and confusion — to remind Minnesotans once again of the impact this venture had on the economic history of the state.
The lessons of ERA suggest that adjusting to an ever-changing world economy never stops. The choices made now about capitalism and its effects — profits vs. wages, immigration, environmental protection, individual freedom vs. social needs, government regulation — will affect the lives of Minnesotans for decades to come. Recognizing the value of entrepreneurism needs to be included in the decisionmaking process.
Those early codebreakers helped defeat tyranny in World War II. They then went on to build computers that transformed society by solving problems, sharing knowledge and spreading communications throughout the world. Their successors created employment and an improved standard of living for millions. Some of the best of them lived and worked right here in the Twin Cities.
Speakers at the plaque-unveiling will represent different parts of the ERA story. Two of them — John Rollwagen, former CEO and chairman of Cray Research, and Manny Villafana, founder of St. Jude Medical, who is now working on his eighth med-tech startup company — believe the magic can still happen. Entrepreneurs can still plant seeds that will bloom into vibrant clusters of jobs in the Twin Cities area.
ERA's achievements, and the successes this enterprise brought to the Twin Cities, were due to more than the luck of finding a factory in St. Paul. Its leaders and their employees demonstrated energy, intelligence, persistence and confidence, and had the broader community behind them. Their vision provided a model for entrepreneurism that deserves to be widely supported today. Perhaps our future leaders will come from immigrant families. After all, Manny Villafana's first language was Spanish. His parents came from Puerto Rico.
ERA represented capitalism at its best. Its legacy is one of the treasures of the Twin Cities.
Don Hall is a retired Minneapolis investor who wrote the book "Generation of Wealth: The rise of Control Data and how it inspired an era of innovation and investment in the Upper Midwest," published by the Nodin Press in 2014. Dave Beal is a retired Pioneer Press business editor/columnist and the author of "Mairs & Power at 90," published by the Ramsey County Historical Society in 2021.