Somewhere in the recesses of my memory there lives a small photograph, from one of the many magazines that fed my young interests in science and electronics – it was probably Popular Science. In my mind I see a man standing before a large machine. The man looks awkward; he clearly didn’t want to pose for the magazine photographer. The machine behind him was an amazing computer, its insides a riot of wires all of the same color; the accompanying text told me each piece was cut to a precise length so that signals could be synchronized to arrive at their destinations at exactly the right time.
My young mind was agog that a machine could be so precisely timed that a few centimeters could make a difference to a signal propagating at the speed of light. As a result, I never forgot the name of the man in the photo – Seymour Cray, the creator of the supercomputer. The machine was his iconic Cray-1, the fastest scientific computer in the world for years, which would go on to design nuclear weapons, model crashes to make cars safer, and help predict the weather.
Very few people get to have their name attached so firmly to a product, let alone have it become a registered trademark. The name Cray became synonymous with performance computing, but Seymour Cray contributed so much more to the computing industry than just the company that bears his name that it’s worth taking a look at his life, and how his machines created the future.
Inventing an Industry
The small city of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin would be both the birthplace of Seymour Cray and the place that would hold him and give him roots. From the day he was born in 1925, Chippewa Falls was his place. His father, a civil engineer, encouraged his obvious early interest in the technical world, with radio playing a central role in his interests.
Seymour’s first taste of the world outside Chippewa Falls came courtesy of the US Army in 1943. Reluctant to enlist, he ended up in the infantry and saw action in both the European and Pacific theaters. The Army found little use for his electrical talents in Europe beyond assigning him to a signals unit and having him tote field radios around Germany, but in the Philipines he was put to work on cryptographic analysis of Japanese codes, which at least harnessed some of his considerable mathematical powers.
With the end of the war, Seymour completed his degree in electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota, and stayed on for a Master’s in applied mathematics. With little idea what to do next, he took a professor’s advice to apply at a place called Engineering Research Associates in St. Paul, Minnesota.
ERA was one of the first companies created specifically to build computers. Formed during the war to concentrate on code-breaking gear for the US Navy, the firm was kept afloat by the Navy even when funding for other military contractors dried up after the war. ERA continued to build crypto gear for the military, but started applying their technology to service a new market: commercial digital computers. Their first product, the ERA 1101, came from the Navy’s need for a code-breaking machine that could be quickly reprogrammed. That machine would later become the UNIVAC 1101, after ERA was purchased by the Remington Rand Corporation.
Seymour’s first job at ERA was designing the successor to the 1101. The ERA 1103 was a behemoth of vacuum tube technology, weighing in at 19 tons. For RAM it used Williams tubes, CRTs displaying a matrix of dots for each memory location; the presence or absence of electrostatic charge could be sensed with metal plates on the tube’s screen. It was unwieldy but far faster than other RAM technologies of the day, and helped give the 1103 the edge over an IBM machine in a head-to-head test by the Navy to assess machines for weather prediction.
Back to Chippewa Falls
With the sale of ERA to Remington Rand and a concentration on machines and processes specifically for business, Seymour saw the writing on the wall. His interests lie in high-performance scientific computing, and so he left ERA to start his own company. Along with William Norris, another ERA alum, he founded Control Data Corporation (CDC) in 1957. The timing was perfect because commercially viable transistors were becoming available in bulk at reasonable prices. Using his favorite design tools – a blank notebook and a #3 pencil – Seymour sat down to create CDC’s first machine.
The CDC 1604 was basically the ERA 1103 redesigned with germanium transistors. A 48-bit machine rather than a 36-bit machine like the 1103, the 1604 was tiny compared to its tube-filled cousin – less than a tonne and only the size of two large refrigerators. It was the first transistorized scientific computer, and more than 50 were built. While some private sector companies bought the 1604, the military was its biggest buyer. The US Navy bought the first machine for weather predictions, and the Air Force put redundant pairs of 1604s in Minuteman silos for guidance and aiming calculations for the ballistic missiles.
Seymour leveraged the success of the 1604 to the hilt. He set the bar for his next machine very high – a machine 50 times faster than the already speedy 1604. To deliver, he needed freedom from the distractions of upper management and visiting customers, so he insisted on relocating his development team to his hometown of Chippewa Falls. With newer, faster silicon transistors, the CDC 6600, an order of magnitude faster than any other machine on the market, debuted in 1964. The 6000 series would sell over 400 units, and it would remain the world’s fastest computer until Seymour’s next machine, the CDC 7600, which he started designing when he got bored with the almost-completed 6600 design, knocked it off its throne in 1969. The age of the supercomputer had arrived, and Seymour Cray was at its forefront.
Seymour parted ways with CDC in 1972 on friendly terms to form his own company, Cray Research. The company’s R&D labs were built in the backyard of Cray’s Chippewa Falls home, and Cray would add manufacturing facilities in the city as well. Seymour Cray’s “star power” had investors begging to give the new company money, and in four years Cray turned that cash in the Cray-1. The supercomputer had an undeniable aesthetic appeal; with narrow racks arranged in a C-shape that framed a view into the backplane of the machine, it was like looking into its soul. The base of the machine was ringed by power supplies and cooling units housed in small enclosures topped with padded seats, giving the Cray-1 its reputation as “the world’s most expensive loveseat.”
The Cray-1 was Seymour’s first design based on integrated circuits, and everything about it, from the Freon-tube cooling system to the vector processor to those interconnections optimized for signal synchronization, screamed speed. It was sexy as hell, and became the must-have machine for big number-crunchers. Over 80 of the $8 million machines were sold. The Cray-1 and its descendants remained at the top of the supercomputer heap well into the 1990s.
Time and technology, not to mention the end of the Cold War and its lavish defense budgets, eventually caught up with Cray’s designs. It became more cost effective to throw racks of commodity computers at the kinds of problems supercomputers had been built to solve, and demand for his big machines waned. He resisted the massively parallel approach for years, but eventually relented and set up a new company, SRC Computers, to develop the new designs. Tragically, just as the company was getting started in Colorado Springs in 1996, Seymour’s Jeep was clipped by another car and rolled three times. Seymour was rushed to the hospital but died there three days later. He was 71 years old.
It’s sad to think about what the world lost when those designs died with Seymour Cray, and we’ll never know what might have been. But perhaps the amount of scientific knowledge that was generated thanks to the raw computational power Seymour gave the world was bequest enough, and then some.