“Father of Supercomputers” Seymour Cray

Yesterday my son and I (on our 8th Annual Dad & Son Adventure) drove into Chippewa Falls, WI since I’d never seen the town and was curious as to why Seymour Cray (seen at left below), the “father of supercomputers” placed the R&D arm of Cray Research there.

My 12 year old is like most: his eyes roll up when I tell him we’re stopping by a museum. I’ve learned to set hard limits on time (“we’ll only spend X minutes there and then decide if we want to stay“) which works well so I can always get him to agree to at least take a peek.

Turns out the museum wasn’t open officially yesterday, but they let us wander around on our own and read the signs within the small exhibit area.

In many ways looking at the early Control Data computers was like seeing a set from the movie Dr. Strangelove. But what was really fascinating to me was the early wiring diagrams for 1950’s era computers that were drawn by two women at drafting tables from the design specifications Seymour Cray put together. That, coupled with the mass of wires embedded in the early Cray supercomputers, seems incredibly inefficient by today’s standards.

What impressed my son — especially when I pointed out that the RAM in his Nintendo DS stored as much data as one of those HUGE 26″ platters seen in the photo with a CD and floppy disks for comparison. The sign read, “This 26 inch platter weighs approximately six pounds and holds a total of 4 million bytes of information, 2 million bytes (2 megabytes) on each side. (Abbreviated 2MB.)

The colored 3.5 inch disks currently in use today hold 1.44 megabytes each, so only three disks would be needed to store the same amount of information as the 26 inch platter.

A current recordable compact disk (CD-R, below) holds 700 megabytes (700MB) and weighs approximately one ounce. This CD will hold the same amount of information as 175 platters, which would weigh 1,055 pounds. No wonder these disks earned the name “compact” and are so popular!

Since I was born in the late 1950’s, all of this evolution has occurred in my lifetime. I remember a guy across the street from me who was going to “get in to the computer business with this company called Control Data” which seemed pretty exotic in the late 1960’s. I still have some measure of sadness-from-afar at the demise of Control Data and how the computing business ended and Minnesota became a relative backwater in technology.

It’s important for kids to truly understand the evolution of computing as well as all the other things upon which we build our collective future. In the same way that people like Seymour Cray are not studied in schools, I think about inventors like Dean Kamen who have done amazing things too and are not lauded at all — but my guy knows about Kamen since we talk about his successes and his failures.

So how did our museum peek go? The proof was when we hopped in the car afterwards and I asked my son what he thought: “It was cool Dad…I liked it and those old computers were amazing.”

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1 Comment

  1. PXLated on August 9, 2007 at 1:46 pm

    CDC was a big client and I remember doing a photo shoot at the Arden Hills facility…The cabinets were just loaded with bundles of wire…As I recall, an engineer explained that every wire had to be the same length to keep things in sync. So, if the furthest connection was ten feet away, each wire had to be ten feet, even if its connection was only inches away. Amazing.



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