Seymour Cray, Father of the Supercomputer

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.

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How The Integrated Circuit Came To Be

As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. It may surprise you that the microchip that we all know and love today was far from an obvious idea. Some of the paths that were being explored back then to cram more components into a smaller area seem odd now. But who hasn’t experienced hindsight of that sort, even on our own bench tops.

Let’s start the story of the microchip like any good engineering challenge should be started, by diving into the problem that existed at the time with the skyrocketing complexity of computing machines.

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World’s oldest computer music unveiled

Fans of music made with obsolete technology are in for a treat: recordings of a Ferranti Mark 1 computer playing Baa Baa Black Sheep and In the Mood were recently released, and they are thought to be the oldest recordings of computer generated music in existence.

The Ferranti Mark 1 is a commercial version of Manchester University’s SSEM computer (aka Baby), which preceded several more well known computers like UNIVAC and EDVAC. It was one of the first computers that didn’t require a great deal of hardware rewiring to perform different tasks, making it ideal for this sort of purpose. It is not known whether the program was written to play these songs only or for more diverse composition and playback, but the author, [Chris Strachey] was known to be a friend of the legendary [Alan Turing]. The recording was released as part of the Manchester SSEM’s 60th anniversary celebration.


We coaxed our friends at Mahalo Daily into coming along with us to LA SIGGRAPH’s Maker Night. There were a handful of interesting projects there. [Univac] was showing a circuit bent Teletubby and his CellularRecombomat. [Brett Doar] brought his Bronco Table. Tired of engineers building items that made life easier, he decided to make something that made life more difficult. The table uses a piezo to detect the sound of something being set on top. It then starts twitching and bucking to shake the item free. The motors look like they’re salvaged window motors. Finally, we talked to [Mark Frauenfelder] from BoingBoing/Make about how he got into the DIY culture.