Interviewing CDA
Charles Babbage Institute
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Misa Interviews Control Data Australia

In November 2013, I found myself far from home and trying to fathom a bizarre lunchtime conversation.  I’d just arrived in Melbourne, Australia, after a 24 hour Minneapolis–Los Angeles–Sydney routing.  Never had the phrase “two nations divided by a common language,” typically invoked for Britain and the United States, seemed more pertinent.  The lunchtime topic was professional liars.

 

“You see, it’s so difficult to find a good liar,” said one of the lunch party.  Murmurs of assent.  It seemed Australia had established official lists of these sought-after ‘liars.’  Some of them specialized in real estate (this resonated with my experience buying a house in Chicago some years back!).  Other ‘liars’ worked their magic with commercial services and bankruptcy.  For ten minutes or so I was flummoxed.  But of course the problem at hand was not ‘liars’ but ‘lawyers.’

 

The next day I took the train across Melbourne and met three dozen former Control Data Australia (CDA) employees over pizza.  They helped me through the intricacies of our “common language” and we set up a week-long marathon of oral history interviewing.  A bit of history: Control Data moved overseas rather quickly after its founding in 1957, and for years Australia was its star overseas performer.  I first became aware of CDA while preparing Building the Control Data Legacy: The Career of Robert M. Price (Charles Babbage Institute, 2012).  Bob Price was centrally involved with Control Data’s international business, and he and I have shared stories about Australia.

 

In Melbourne for the week, I did interviews with 13 Control Data Australia managers, engineers, programmers, and HR staff.  We covered everything from selling computer hardware to mining companies or the Australian government to creating software for the Australian and New Zealand horse-racing industry.  Among the many other topics covered in these interviews are networking, international business, database management, computer maintenance and trouble-shooting, developing and marketing computer services, and the intricacies of programming in COBOL.  These Australians developed distinctive views of the Midwest-centered Control Data headquarters staff. 

 

cda
A few interviewees at a 2007 lunch. Clockwise: Bob Price, Alan Bell, Graham Knox, Colin
Elliot, George Karoly, John O’Neil. Photo taken by Ron Bird.

 

Although Control Data Australia was dissolved in the mid-1990s, the “ex-CDA” group has been meeting each month ever since.  Every two years they hold a reunion.  And they maintain an active website, with many first-person historical accounts, at <excda.site44.com>.  My special thanks to John O’Neil and Ron Bird, for helping set up interviews; Mike Spark, for a lovely day trout fishing and picnicking; and Peter Jones in Sydney, whose lunchtime conversation at the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron took us back to the legendary days of Seymour Cray.  The almost 600 pages of interviews are making their way through editing and transcription, and will be appearing soon on the CBI oral history database <www.cbi.umn.edu/oh>.

Thomas J. Misa


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