“As you know, a view of self is one of the last things you ever get straight.” Seymour Cray, Father of the Supercomputer, 1925-1996.
When my brother came from San Francisco to visit, I took him to a small unobtrusive government building on the corner of Grand and Rushman, home of the The Chippewa Falls Museum of Industry and Technology. “Are you here for Parks and Rec or the museum?” the woman at the front desk asked. She was surprised when we said the museum. “There it is!” my brother cried. “The Cray 1!” Back in 1988, my brother read an article in Time Magazine about Seymour Cray, Chippewa Falls’ most influential citizen. For several years the article hung on his wall in Lincoln, Nebraska. He never dreamed he would see a Cray computer himself.
For a man who deemed himself a loner, who claimed to require only a few hours of human interaction a week, Seymour Cray had a striking insight into human character. “People buy these great big computers emotionally,” Cray said in a November 1985 video interview on display at the museum. “It’s not necessarily that they need them at all…and so aesthetics are very important.” The machines are sixties-hip, both Star Trek retro and ultra-modern. The Cray 1, unveiled in 1975, is a squat six-foot tower, a 12-sided C with vertical panels in maroon, green, black. It is encircled by its cooling mechanism, doubling as a vinyl-covered bench. Co-founder of Cray Research, Frank Mullaney, laughed that potential investors scoffed at the design. “Some people were so unkind as to say the Cray 1 belonged in the lobby of a cheap hotel.” But step inside the Cray 1 and you will find 200,000 integrated circuits and 67 miles of wire, a machine that took one year to assemble and was capable of doing 80 million operations per second, the fastest computer ever invented, a snail compared to the computer I type on today.
Seymour Cray worked out the arrangement of these wires with a very sharp #3 pencil and graph paper. Cray said, “I like to stay with very primitive tools. . . . The fancier the tools, the greater percent of your time is spent working with the tool.” One of his notebooks was on display. My brother and I paged through it, marveling at the incomprehensible lists of numbers and letters, notes to himself which read like gibberish. “Instruction stack. Assume 8-8-8-8-16k Coincidence fields. Two 16x4 chip banks. Four 4kx1 banks.” This thought, written on 01-20-83 is followed by a circled “No.” On another page, the only thing in the entire notebook not written square with the graph lines, the calculation, “256+18=274”
Ask people around town about Seymour Cray and they will tell you that he kept to himself, wore a flannel shirt, drove a rusty old pick-up. (His wife drove a Ferrari.) A modest little museum, open only in the afternoons seems an appropriate match for a man who shunned publicity. His greatest wish was to be left alone to do technical work. When he got stuck on a problem, he dug, working on an 8 foot by 8 foot tunnel leading from his house out into the forest. Although many people liken him to the world’s greatest inventors - Edison, Bell, Marconi - Cray himself seemed unimpressed by his own achievements. “I took parts of different people’s ideas and put them together. That’s why I call myself a packager.”
In the pouring rain, we drove to Gordy's supermarket to buy film for my brother's camera. We returned to the museum where I took pictures of my brother standing inside the world's first supercomputer.