Minnesota, known as the "Land of 10,000 Lakes", is less well known for the vital role it played in the evolution of High-Performance Computing (HPC). Although the region has been instrumental in shaping computer hardware and software, it has often been overlooked since Minnesota's early computer companies focused on classified military projects largely unknown to the public. Nonetheless, the state's early involvement in computers led to advancements in memory, speed, and reliability, eventually influencing commercial technology. The University of Minnesota likewise played a pivotal role in becoming a computer research and development hub. Some might even argue that the university's dedication to scientific advancements set the stage for Minnesota's future leadership in supercomputing.
Minnesota's Computing Timeline
1940s & 50s
Minnesota's computing timeline began in 1947 with the establishment of the Engineering Research Associates (ERA). Then, in 1956, IBM established a computing center in Rochester, Minnesota. Soon after, in 1957, several engineers left ERA (now Sperry) to form a new company called Control Data Corporation ("Control Data"). Seymour Cray was the chief designer at Control Data, a University of Minnesota graduate primarily recognized as the father of supercomputing. Control Data's initial success was commercializing and mass-producing peripheral products like magnetic tape drives.
In 1965, the state became home to the world's first successful supercomputer. The "CDC 6600" was the most powerful computer in the world.
In 1972, Seymour Cray left CDC and established Cray Research with headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota and research and development (R&D) in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. The first Cray Supercomputer — the Cray-1 — was sold in 1976 to Los Alamos National Labs.
But innovation and advancement continued in the state in other areas. Univac's Semiconductor Control Facility opened in 1973, and in 1975, IBM Rochester introduced one of its most successful mid-range computers, the System/32 targeted for small businesses.
Minnesota also greatly influenced the computer gaming industry in the 1970s. In 1970, the Oregon Trail Computer Game was developed by three Carleton College graduates (Dan Rawitsch, Bill Heineman, and Paul Dillenberger) and produced just a few years later by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC). The games were created as "edutainment" for the Minnesota educational system, then later installed on millions of Apple computers.
In 1981, the University of Minnesota became the first American university to own a supercomputer with its acquisition of a Cray-1 system. This investment allowed researchers across disciplines to capitalize on a whole new level of computing power.
In 1985, IBM Rochester launched "Project Silverlake, a secret plan to develop a single machine that could replace all of IBM's midrange computers." The project resulted in a family of computers known as "Application System/400" — computers that were conceptualized, designed, and manufactured at IBM Rochester.
In 1991, a select number of engineers and computer scientists launched "Gopher Protocol", a networked computing system connecting people ahead of the internet. By the late 1990s, however, the internet had arrived, revolutionizing how people communicated and accessed information. Minnesota's businesses and educational institutions quickly embraced this digital era, integrating the internet into daily operations.
2000s and 2010s
In 2004, along came IBM's Blue Gene Supercomputer. This HPC initiative aimed to develop supercomputers to perform advanced scientific simulations and conduct research in various fields, including physics, biology, and climate science. That same year, IBM laboratory built the first IBM Blue Gene/L in Rochester, MN.
Multiple IBM Blue Gene variants and subsequent generations were built in Rochester, Minnesota, and installed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Argon National Laboratory. From 2004 to 2009, Blue Gene generations ranked first in the world's fastest supercomputer list. In 2009, IBM received the National Medal of Honor for Technology and Innovation from President Barak Obama.
Quantum computing also has a significant link to Minnesota. In 2021, Honeywell announced that Honeywell Quantum Solutions would separate and combine with Cambridge Quantum to form Quantinuum. One of Honeywell's Quantum Solutions locations affected by this merger was located in Minnesota and is now a Quantinuum research center.
Minnesota's technology companies also played a significant role in shaping the mobile landscape as the world began moving toward mobile computing. Minnesota-based firms contributed to the global mobile revolution by developing advanced smartphones for emerging mobile applications. Other significant historical computing companies having past or current ties to Minnesota include Sperry Corporation, Remington Rand, Univac, Unisys, Hitachi, and Western Digital.
Minnesota remains a hub for supercomputer manufacturing activity in the United States. Just recently, the Benchmark Rochester team manufactured and developed test solutions for multiple HPC systems on the Top500 Supercomputer list (including some in the top 10, along with emerging systems that will soon compete for top positions).
Sustainable Computing — Minnesota's Green Initiatives
As we move into the 21st century, Minnesota's focus is shifting to sustainable computing practices. After all, the state's cold climate is an advantage as data centers harness low temperatures for natural cooling, reducing their environmental impact. Today, Minnesota stands at the cusp of cutting-edge technologies, including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and edge computing. The state's thriving ecosystem of startups, academic institutions, and established technology companies propels it toward a promising future in computing.
Benchmark's History of Compute in Minnesota
In the 1970s, EMD Associates (EMD) was founded with sites in Winona, Minnesota. EMD's business grew in the 1980s and 1990s due mainly to substantial contracts within the design and manufacturing realm. Focused on disk drives and fault-tolerant computers, EMD grew and was subsequently purchased by Benchmark in 1996. Pemstar — founded in Rochester, Minnesota in 1994 — was started by IBM employees and later purchased by Benchmark in 2007.
Benchmark Minnesota facilities continue to manufacture and leverage our extensive range of expertise across advanced technologies and distinctive capabilities. Benchmark Minnesota has close ties to the supercomputing industry and fulfills your HPC requirements through our commitment to innovation and investment in dedicated resources. Our capabilities extend beyond advanced fiber optics and photonics products and assembly and packaging. We also bring unique skills, such as developing test systems for liquid-cooled computers and offering specialized mechanical capabilities for non-traditional connectors. This expertise has been instrumental in supporting innovative systems like those of Oxide Computer Company.
These investments enable us to transform designs into tangible realities using advanced manufacturing processes. Benchmark Minnesota is leading the way, advancing the computing industry with a commitment to innovation, research, and sustainable practices.
We invite you to visit the Benchmark page on advanced computing capabilities to learn more.
**Cray-1 Image specs: