Cray-1: The Super Computer

Cray-1: The Super Computer
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Seymour Cray’s big super computer was crazy. It’s signals between components had to be timed by trimming long cables up to 1/16th of an inch at a time by hand and was basically interwoven with a giant refrigeration system.

Name: Cray-1
Year created: 1976
Creator: Cray Research, Inc.
Cost: $US5 million to $US10 million
Memory: 4MW semiconductor
Speed: 160 MFLOPS

Building supercomputers was a dream, an aspiration, and a life’s pursuit for Seymour Cray, and his work on the computers that bore his name was the culmination of work he had done for the U.S. Navy, for CDC [Control Data Corporation] , and finally for his namesake company. When Cray left CDC in 1972, after his work on the 6600, 7600, and minimally the 8600, he took much of the supercomputer fire with him.

While Cray’s departure from CDC wasn’t overly dramatic, his impact on supercomputing was. Cray artfully designed computers so that each part worked to efficiently speed up the whole, and he usually didn’t rely on the newest experimental components, preferring instead to tweak existing technologies for maximum performance. For instance, the Cray-1 was the first Cray machine to use integrated circuits, despite their having been on the market for about a decade. At 160 MFLOPS, the Cray-1 was the fastest machine at the time, and despite what seemed like only a niche market for expensive superfast machines, Cray Research sold more than a hundred of them.

Form and size were always concerns for Cray, as far back as his days developing the CDC 160, which was built into an ordinary desk. There was also a big concern with the heat that could be generated by so many parts being packaged so tightly together, so Cray’s designs typically involved unique cooling solutions, whether it be Freon on the Cray-1, or Fluorinert, in which Cray-2’s circuit boards were immersed.

Core Memory is a photographic exploration of the Computer History Museum’s collection, highlighting some of the most interesting pieces in the history of computers. These excerpts were used with permission of the publisher. Special thanks to Fiona!

The photos in the book were taken by Mark Richards, whose work has appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Fortune, Smithsonian, Life and BusinessWeek. The eye-candy is accompanied by descriptions of each artifact to cover the characteristics and background of each object, written by John Alderman who has covered the culture of high-tech lifestyle since 1993, notably for Mondo 2000, HotWired and Wired News. A foreword is provided by the Computer History Museum’s Senior Curator Dag Spicer.

Or go see the real things at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

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