True Pioneer: William C Norris

With all the discussion we have about learning technologies, social networking and relevance to learning it’s worth spending a few minutes to reflect on, and be humbled by, the work of a man who, at the height of his pioneering career in the mainframe computer industry, had a vision to improve learning that we not only enjoy today but take for granted.

William C Norris was the founder and Chairman of Control Data Corporation.  He passed away 21 August 2006 at a nursing home  in Bloomington, Minn. USA.  He had Parkinson’s disease and was 95 years of age.

Control Data Corporation was formed in 1957.  After the corporation built the first commercial super-computer (CDC 6600) in 1964 which was 10 times faster than anything on the market, Norris built Control Data into the fourth-largest data processing business in the world.  It was worth $5 billion in 1984.  One of the important and legendary computer engineers who worked with Norris was Seymour Cray.

William Norris was touched by the plight of the socially disadvantaged people of America and how education could improve their situation.  He demonstrated industry leadership in vastly improving employment opportunities and working conditions for people within his own company, and he influenced others to follow.  It was in 1959 that he became intrigued by the work being undertaken by Dr Donald Bitzer at the University if Illinios to develop a means to use a computer for instructional purposes.  This was the birth of the PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) system.  Norris negotiated a funding arrangement with the University signalling one of the most fruitful collaborative efforts in academic-corporate relationships.  Certainly Norris was interested in the business opportunities for Control Data but underpinning that was his belief that the PLATO system had the potential to deal with improving the quality of public education.

Part of this was the ability of the PLATO system’s communication features which provided an ability for remotely located teachers and students to communicate and discuss issues by direct wired networks!  Yes, this was in 1973!  PLATO Notes was among the world’s first online message boards, and years later became the direct progenitor of the well known early email system Lotus Notes.

Norris set up a network of Control Data Institutes (CDIs) to address vocational education and by 1983 CDIs were in 40 USA cities and had expanded into England, France, Germany, Canada and Australia.  But it was Norris’ vision to assist the disadvantaged, including those with physical disabilities, that saw PLATO used for education and training in developing countries.  Two settings were chosen for this purpose: South Africa and Jamaica.  In Johannesburg, South Africa PLATO was used for industrial training in and The Univeristy of Western Cape used PLATO for remedial education to reduce the dropout rate.  In 1983 the unemployment rate in Jamacia was around 30% with 350,000 young people between 15 and 21 functionaly illiterate.  Norris ensured the focus was on teacher training, the teaching of basic skills and vocational education.

Norris wrote a book titled “New Frontiers for Business Leadership” (details below) and I have utilised some of the content in developing this post.  It sits with a few others like it on my bookshelf – an armslength away – as I find it an inspiring read and I often reach for it to thumb through one of the Chapters – Education, Employment, Small Business, Urban Revitalisation, Rural Revitalisation and Heath Care and a very insighful chapter Worker Performance and Productivity.  All these written with obvious care and concern for people, for equality, community education and social harmony.  It opens good wholesome reasons for computer generated learning and, unlike many new technologies these days which are essentially solutions looking for application, Norris highlighted and was passionate about a need and he visioned a solution.

Noris was not just an astute businessman and cpmputer scientist in the cut and thrust developing computer industry.  Leadership, innovation, compassion for people and social harmony were his real values.  Here is what he said almost 30 years ago “Society can no longer be served by traditional educational methods; they are simply too costly and too limited.  Ultimately the computer will . . . have the capacity to reach every individual in the world and provide better access to knowledge that will both enrich their personal lives and give them more control over their destinies.  The stage has been set; the scenario is no idle dream” (Norris, W.C., New Frontiers for Business Leadership, Dorn Books, Minneapolis, 1983, p.87)

It doesn’t do any harm, amongst our enthusiasm for learning and technology, to be grateful for men like William C Norris.  He was not an educator by qualification, but he was by heart.

 True Pioneer: William C Norris – Learning Cafe


  1. Bob – Thanks for this tribute. I loved reading. In this world where “the future” is top of mind, we tend to forget the sterling contributions made by people who have allowed us to be where we are today.

  2. One other feature of Control Data was that they maintained a ratio of approx 90% permanent and 10% casual staff to serve as a buffer to having to lay off permanent employees promoting long term enagement with the Company

Comments are closed.