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Historical Figures of Engineering: Seymour Cray

Posted by Azem Hoti on Jul 29, 2019 4:40:30 PM 1564558187994
Azem Hoti
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Supercomputers drive many of our technical industries forward with superior processing power and a high level of sophistication.

The creation of the first supercomputer was a masterpiece of engineering and a transformative moment in the history of computing.

Who Was Seymour Cray?

Born in American in 1925, Seymour Cray had an early interest in engineering. At school he spent most of his time in the science lab, and his parents converted the basement of their home into a laboratory for him work in. He worked mostly with radio appliances, encouraged by his father, who was himself a civil engineer.

He enlisted in the army as a radio operator in 1943. He was eventually deployed in the Philippines where he worked on decrypting Japanese codes.

After the war he completed his degree in electrical engineering, and then did a Master’s in applied mathematics. After this, he took a professor’s advice, and applied to work at Engineering Research Associates, one of the first companies specifically designed to build computers. Formed during the war to build code-breaking technology for the Navy, it continued in this capacity while also expanding out to build civilian computers.

Their first product was the ERA 1101. Cray was tasked with designing its successor, the 1103. It was a gigantic machine, weighing 19 tonnes.

In 1957, the company was taken over, and he and a colleague left to create Control Data Corporation.

The Creation Of The Supercomputer

Once Cray was free to design and create whatever he wanted, he set to work on what he would call the CDC 1604. It was one of the first computers to replace vacuum tubes with transistors. Focused on speed, the machine was formidable for its time, weighing less than a tonne, and it put Cray on the engineering map.

He wanted his next computer to be fifty times faster. He succeeded.

He later created the CDC 6600, which at the time in 1964 was the fastest computer in the world, able to execute three million floating-point operations per second. This machine gave rise to the term supercomputer.

Cray began designing his next computer before he’d even finished designing the 6600, and in 1972 Cray founded his own firm, Cray Research Inc. He set up the company’s R&D labs in his backyard, and had a single goal: to create the fastest computers in the world. Luckily for him, he had become quite famous in the business world thanks to his industry-leading computers, and found many investors ready to back him financially, anxious for the latest technology to stay ahead of their competitions.

In 1976 he created the Cray-1, which would be the fastest supercomputer for years. It could perform 240 million calculations per second. It would go on to help design nuclear weapons, predict the weather, and model complex situations.

It was Cray’s first design based on integrated circuits, and had a revolutionary Freon-tube cooling system. It easily beat all other computers on the market in terms or speed and reliability, and caused a frenzy in the business world.

A single Cray-1 machine cost $8 million because the company only expected to sell maybe a dozen units. However around 100 were sold, and the machine remained popular into the 1990’s. Its iconic design featured seat cushions, because Cray wanted the maintenance engineers to be comfortable.

He died in 1996 after a car accident. The following year, The Institute Of Electrical And Electronics Engineers created the Seymour Cray Computer Engineering Award in honour of his inventive and pioneering spirit.

Read about quantum technology, the next stage in computing, or learn about another historical figure crucial to the field: John Von Neumann.

Topics: Engineering & Defence