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Lawshe Museum decoding Minnesota’s computer history
Before Silicon Valley boomed or Bill Gates was even born, some of the first breakthroughs in the field of computer science were already taking place in Minnesota.
At its peak, the local computer industry produced technology that handled air traffic control at airports nationwide, processed data aboard U.S. Navy ships, assisted in NASA launches and revolutionized banking and commerce.
Over time, however, as the market shifted and tech hubs sprang up elsewhere in the country, Minnesota’s contributions to the field were largely forgotten by the public. The door effectively shut on those pioneering days with the closure of Lockheed Martin’s historic Eagan site in 2013.
Now the Dakota County Historical Society is working to bring those contributions back into the public eye. The organization recently received a $25,000 grant from the Minnesota Historical Society to complete a photo essay for the Lawshe Museum in South St. Paul that will take viewers from the founding of Minnesota’s first computer company, Engineering Research Associates, in 1946, through Lockheed Martin’s withdrawal from Minnesota two years ago.
“We’d like to reinforce Minnesota’s image as a technology wellspring with this exhibit,” explained Lynn Gruber, executive director of the Dakota County Historical Society.
The DCHS will hold its first official meeting to plan the exhibit Jan. 28, but the in the near term the work will consist of sifting through archives to select historically significant photographs to include.
“We’re going to sort through thousands and thousands of photographs,” Gruber said.
In addition to the photos, the exhibit will also include artifacts such as sewer-lid-sized memory disks and towering mainframes as well as audio recordings of people who remember the early days of Minnesota’s computer industry.
Saving lost history
One such industry veteran who has been heavily involved in the project is Harvey Taipale. Taipale, a Lake Elmo resident, started working at Univac (a successor to ERA) in 1966 and stayed with the company through its acquisition by Lockheed Martin in 1996.
Taipale retired in 2007.
As a member of the VIP Club, a group for retirees of Minnesota computer companies (including Univac, Remington Rand, Sperry and Unisys), Taipale returned to Lockheed Martin’s Eagan facility to explore the archives in preparation for the company’s 100th anniversary celebration in 2012.
Ironically, it was a decidedly analog project. History fans found dusty crates and file boxes full of paperwork, photos and plans marking the early days.
“As we dug into it, we realized there probably some pretty interesting stuff that went on here in Minnesota that most people probably don’t know about,” Taipale said.
The club’s interest in the archives became more urgent, however, after the company announced it would close the facility by 2013 and was prepared to shed nearly 60 years worth of documents and artifacts.
“We had all kinds of stuff we didn’t know what to do with, but we knew it shouldn’t be lost,” Taipale said.
The pace picks up
One obvious choice was the Charles Babbage Institute, a research center at the University of Minnesota that specializes in the history of information technology and its impact on society. The institute agreed to take a large share of the collection, but limited its accepted items to printed photographs and negatives.
Fortunately, Bernard Jansen and Millie Gignac, two members of the VIP Club, also happened to be trustees of the Dakota County Historical Society. Since a bulk of the history represented in the archives took place in Dakota County, they suggested it would make sense to collaborate with the historical society to preserve photos and artifacts.
The partnership between the historical society and the VIP Club meant for the first time in years, a history that had been stored away could now be passed on to a new generation. Shortly after proposing a photographic exhibit based on the artifacts, the two groups began pursuing a Legacy grant through the Minnesota Historical Society to help preserve and present the state’s technology-driven past.
According to David Grabitske, manager of Outreach Services for the Minnesota Historical Society, DCHS’ grant application was one of 81 in its category. All told, applicants were seeking a total of $8.2 million, with only $3.6 million available in the grant pool.
“The competition was very intense,” Grabitske said. “There were a lot of very great ideas, but the way the competition really works is how well you can articulate.”
So secret, it’s been forgotten
Part of the reason Minnesota’s computer industry isn’t as well known as other regions’ has to do with its niche. From the beginning, the most important (and only, at the time) customer was the federal government, which demanded secrecy on all products and projects.
So even though the first computer ever sold as a commercial commodity was built in Minnesota in 1950, the fact that it was purchased by a Navy department that later grew to become the National Security Agency ensured the public would remain oblivious to the milestone. (That computer was the Atlas, a model used for code cracking and vaunted for its reliability.)
The emphasis made sense, explained Taipale, because at the time it was hard to conceive anyone besides the government having any use for computers.
“Those initial investments were really driven by the military,” Taipale said. “It was probably about 1980 that people realized they could start using these in a commercial setting.”
As the technology market shifted away from the government-dominated era to business and in-home use, Minnesota made attempts to diversify, but Taipale said by then there was no chance to gain a foothold.
“By that time, it was too late for almost anybody else,” Taipale said. “IBM became the giant in the business for the next 50 years.”
Taipale said he also suspects the local industry was held back by one of the state’s most renowned virtues: Minnesota Nice.
“We Minnesotans are poor marketers,” Taipale said. “We don’t like to go places and play the political game. We have this mentality that if you do a good job, people will notice you. In retrospect, that doesn’t always happen.”
But the lack of acknowledgment doesn’t trouble Taipale. Instead, he prefers to focus on the chance educate people on Minnesota legacy they might be unaware of.
“I think it’s an opportunity,” Taipale said. “And the first step in that opportunity is the grant for the Dakota County Historical Society.”
Luke Reiter can be reached at email@example.com or at 651-748-7815.