Engineering Research Associates

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Engineering Research Associates, commonly known as ERA, was a pioneering computer firm from the 1950s. They became famous for their numerical computers, but as the market expanded they became better known for their drum memory systems. They were eventually purchased by Remington Rand and merged into their UNIVAC department. Many of the company founders later left to form Control Data Corporation.

Contents

Wartime Origins of ERA

The ERA team started as a group of scientists and engineers working for the US Navy during WWII on code-breaking, a division known as the Communications Supplementary Activity - Washington (CSAW). After the war budgets were cut for most military projects, including CSAW. Joseph Wenger of the Navy's cryptoanalytic group was particularly worried that the CSAW team would spread to various companies and the Navy would lose their ability to quickly design new machines.

Post-War Organization

Wenger and two members of the CSAW team, William Norris and Howard Engstrom, started looking for investors interested in supporting the development of a new computer company. Their only real lead, at Kuhn, Loeb & Co., eventually fell through.

They then met John Parker, an investment banker who had run a Chase Aircraft glider subsidiary, Northwest Aeronautical Corporation (NAC), in St. Paul, Minnesota. NAC was in the process of shutting down as the war ended most contracts, and he was looking for new projects to keep the factory running. Parker was told nothing about the work the team would do, but after being visited by a series of increasingly high ranking naval officers culminating with James Forrestal, he knew "something" was up and decided to give it a try. Norris headed up the new team, now known as ERA, moving to the NAC factory in 1946.

During the "early" years the company took on any engineering work that came their way, but were generally kept in business developing new code-breaking machines for the Navy. Most of the machines were custom-built to crack a specific code, and increasingly used drum memory in order to store the intercepted messages to be studied. To ensure secrecy, the factory was declared to be a Navy Reserve base, and armed guards were posted at the entrance.

Goldberg and Demon Codebreakers

Their first machine, Goldberg, completed in 1947, used a crude drum made by gluing magnetic tape to the surface of a large metal cylinder that could be spun at 50 RPM for reading (and much slower for writing). Over the next few years, the drum memory systems increased in capacity and speed, along with the paper tape readers needed to feed the data onto the drums. They later ended up in a major patent fight with Technitrol Engineering, who introduced a drum memory of their own in 1952.

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