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Seymour Cray Channeled by Karl Mollison 16 Aug 2020

From “I was one of those nerds before the name was popular,” he told a Smithsonian Institution interviewer. 

A Man Whose Vision Changed the World

Recognized as “the father of supercomputing” and credited with single-handedly creating and leading the high-performance computing industry for decades, Seymour R. Cray was a dedicated and focused computer engineer, regarded by some as a true maverick and “serial” pioneer. Jokingly, he would refer to himself as “an overpaid plumber.”

The beginnings

Born Sept. 28, 1925, in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, Seymour had a fascination with electronics and electrical devices from boyhood. In high school the young Cray preferred to be in the electrical engineering laboratory as much as possible.

In 1943, he joined the U.S. Army, serving in an infantry communications platoon. He arrived in Europe the day after D-Day and saw action in the Battle of the Bulge campaign. Later he served in the Pacific theater in the Philippine Islands.

Seymour’s passion for building scientific computers led him to help start Control Data Corporation (CDC) in 1957. There he realized his goal of building the fastest scientific computer ever, the CDC 1604. It was the first fully transistorized commercial computer — he had eliminated vacuum tubes. Release of the CDC 6600, which was considered the world’s first actual supercomputer, followed in 1963. The CDC 6600 was capable of 9 megaflops (million floating-point operations per second) of processing power and was cooled by Freon. The CDC 7600 was next. Running at 40 megaflops, it in turn became the world’s fastest supercomputer.

In 1968 Seymour began work on the CDC 8600, designed for greater parallelism. It employed four processors, all sharing one memory. In 1968, he was awarded the W.W. McDowell Award by the American Foundation of Information Processing Societies for his work in the computer field.

In 1965 he founded Cray Research Inc. in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.

In 1972 the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) presented Seymour with the Harry H. Goode Memorial Award for his contributions to large-scale computer design and the development of multiprocessing systems. The IEEE created the annual Seymour Cray Computer Engineering Award in honor of Seymour’s “creative spirit” in 1997.

Vector processing is born

The signature Cray®-1 vector supercomputer established a world standard in supercomputing when it was unveiled in 1976. Integrated circuits replaced transistors, and the Cray-1 delivered 170 megaflops of processing speed.

In 1985 the Cray®-2 computer system moved supercomputing forward yet again, breaking the gigaflops (1,000 megaflops) barrier. With the Cray®-3, Seymour turned his attention to the possibilities of gallium arsenide processing chips and reduced packaging. But after experimenting with gallium arsenide as an ultrafast semiconductor material, Seymour returned to the use of silicon chips and introduced Flourinert, an inert fluorocarbon liquid, as a coolant.

In 1989 Seymour left Cray Research to form Cray Computer Corporation (CCC), based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Here he began work on the Cray®-4. CCC closed its doors in 1995 due to financial pressures.

In 1996 Seymour started SRC Computers, Inc., and started the design of his own massively parallel supercomputer, concentrating on the communications and memory performance.

Tragically, on Oct. 5, 1996, at the age of 71, Seymour Cray passed away in Colorado Springs from injuries suffered in a car accident two weeks earlier.

Anyone can build a fast CPU. The trick is to build a fast system. – Seymour Cray

It seems impossible to exaggerate the effect he had on the industry; many of the things that high performance computers now do routinely were at the furthest edge of credibility when Seymour envisioned them. Seymour combined modesty, dedication and brilliance with vision and an entrepreneurial spirit in a way that places him high in the pantheon of great inventors in any field. He ranks up there with Edison and Bell of creating an industry. – Joel Birnbaum, former CTO, Hewlett-Packard

With such exceptional talent for supercomputer innovation was Seymour Cray tapping into ET research in some way?

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