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25 Supercomputers That Fill Entire Rooms

You thought ginormous computers were just reserved for museums and Jeopardy appearances? Think again. Most machines today are exponentially smaller than they were when we first learned the word com-pu-ter, but there are still heaps of monster rigs out there doing all kinds of crazy jobs.



The Typhoon, used by technicians in RCA Laboratories, is typical of the huge computers in the 1950s. The panels in the background house thousands of electron tubes and miles of intricate wiring.
Photo: Keystone/Getty Images



Setups like the Automatic Computing Engine, shown here at an international computing symposium in London in November, 1958, proved that the computer rooms could be architectural achievements as well.
Photo: Ron Case/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images



Long before tiny handheld computers doubled as telephones, early computers aided in communications, as seen in 1967, when the English Electric KDF9 transistorised computer appeared at first regional computing centre in Edinburgh.
Photo: Evening Standard/Getty Images



From the beginning, they helped with engineering — this early machine was located in the Engine Research Building at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, now John H. Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
Photo: Fred Lingelbach/NASA-GRC



The aeronautical field used room-sized computers, like the IBM Electronic Data Processing Machine type 704, at work in 1957 at the Langley Research Center.
Photo: NASA-LaRC



There was an early role in day-to-day transportation purposes too. Here’s an operator in 1968 at a London Airport’s computer, BOADICEA, or the British Overseas Airways Digital Information Computer for Electronic Automation.
Photo: Fox Photos/Getty Images



The military found plenty of early uses for uses for big computers. The Electrical Numerical Integrator and Computer, developed in secret during WWII, is seen here at a ballistics research lab.
Photo: US Army



A little later, computers helped us get to space. IBM´s Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator produced the moon-position tables used for plotting the course of the 1969 Apollo trip to the moon.
Image left by Columbia University, image right by Computer History Museum



And giant computers found fame on movie sets. This Honeywell computer starred alongside Michael Caine in the 1967 film, Billion Dollar Brain. But it was actually worth more like $230,000 at the time.
Photo: Keystone/Getty Images



For all the important work, rooms full of computers also did boring jobs. Here, the differential analyser helps a technician prepare a data report at the John H. Glenn Research Center.
Photo: NASA-GRC



And there was always data to calculate. Here is the Leo III in 1968, a machine employed by the Board of Trade to crunch trade figures, wages and accounts.
Photo: Evening Standard/Getty Images



Yet some early computers began doing the accounting work that controlled entire economies. In 1969, Midland Bank’s 12 million computer complex in London serviced branches throughout the country.
Photo: Wesley/Keystone/Getty Images



Eventually, we say farewell to all the old machines. In December 1959, UNIVAC made its last run at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The lab had just acquired more powerful IBM computers, capable of 15,000 additions per second.
Photo: LLNL



As computers advanced, they continued to fight wars. Here, Sgt.Carlos Ramirez enters data into a tactical fire (TACFIRE) battalion computer at Ft Sill in 1979. Check out the tactical map to the right.
Photo: Jim Hysaw/Defense Imagery



They continued to make breakthroughs in science. In 1985, a technician wearing chemical/biological protective gear operates an AN/GSM-231 computer test station during an operational readiness inspection at Langley.
Photo: Sra Michael Stickle/Defense Imagery



NASA found uses for the newest, most powerful computers to date. Here’s the N-258 NAS computer room (Intel Pargon, CM-5, Cray C-90) — at the Ames Research Center in 1993.
Photo: NASA



A few years later, in 1999, NASA added the NAS Origin 2000 Computer System, a 512 processor (“LOMAX”) station.
Photo: NASA



The defence industry also kept pace with the technology’s advance. In 2000, a technician monitors the ASCI White computer, used by the US Department of Energy to simulate nuclear weapons tests. Once the fastest supercomputer in the world, the RS/6000 SP system is capable of 12 trillion calculations per second, it covers 920sqm of floor space, weighs 96,400kg, and requires 1.2 megawatts of power.
Photo: International Business Machines Corporation/Liaison



Processing speed became its own arms race. NEC Computer corporation’s Earth Simulator Supercomputer in Yokohama, Japan has been ranked twice as the fastest supercomputer in the world since 1993. The Japanese government uses NEC’s supercomputer to make weather forecasts.
Photo: NEC/Getty Images



Europe’s fastest supercomputer, shown at Polytechnical University in Barcelona in 2005, is an IBM that can make 40 trillion calculations per second.
Photo: Fernando Bague/AP



They top machines are in constant competition with each other. The Cray XT5 “Jaguar” supercomputer took the world’s fastest belt in 2009.
Photo: Oak Ridge National Lab, Curtis Boles/AP



The speediest machines enable researchers to do amazing things. The Cray 2 supercomputer at the Langley Research Center can perform half-billion calculations per second.
Photo: James Schultz/NASA-LaRC



They’re so fast the speed is nearly incomprehensible. The Roadrunner Base Capacity system at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2007 could hit more than 70 teraFLOPS operating speed — more than than a thousand trillion calculations per second.
Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory



Now, hundreds of processors share a single room. The NEC SX-8 cluster of the High Performance Computing centre of the University of Stuttgart works with 576 processors with a peak performance of 12 TFlops. It’s one of the speediest in Europe.
Photo: Thomas Kienzle/AP



As of July, the SuperMUC (at Leibniz Supercomputing Centre in Garching near Munich) is the fastest computer in Europe and the fourth fastest computer in the world, according to the Bavarian Academy of Sciences.
Photo: Lennart Preiss/dapd/AP



As speeds advance, of course, some legendary machines retire. Here is the Blue Mountain supercomputer, which was decommissioned in 2004. Capable of 3.1 trillion operations per second, it was one of the world’s 10 fastest supercomputers from 1999-2001. Blue Mountain set a world record in May 2000, when it did 17.8 years of normal computer processing within 72 hours.
Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory



But, as the story progresses, the massive machines keep getting more and more powerful. No room-sized computer can currently match IBM Sequoia, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the world’s fastest supercomputer to date.
Photo: Bob Hirschfeld/LLNL

Image curation: Attila Nagy


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