The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer / Edition 1by Charles J. Murray
Pub. Date: 01/18/1997
"After a rare speech at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, in 1976, programmers in the audience had suddenly fallen silent when Cray offered to answer questions. He stood there for several minutes, waiting for their queries, but none came. When he left, the head of NCAR's computing division chided the programmers. 'Why… See more details below
"After a rare speech at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, in 1976, programmers in the audience had suddenly fallen silent when Cray offered to answer questions. He stood there for several minutes, waiting for their queries, but none came. When he left, the head of NCAR's computing division chided the programmers. 'Why didn't someone raise a hand?' After a tense moment, one programmer replied, 'How do you talk to God?'" -from The SUPERMEN The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards behind the Supercomputer
"They were building revolutionary, not evolutionary, machines. . . . They were blazing a trail-molding science into a product. . . . The freedom to create was extraordinary." -from The Supermen
In 1951, a soft-spoken, skinny young man fresh from the University of Minnesota took a job in an old glider factory in St. Paul. Computer technology would never be the same, for the glider factory was the home of Engineering Research Associates and the recent college grad was Seymour R. Cray. During his extraordinary career, Cray would be alternately hailed as "the Albert Einstein," "the Thomas Edison," and "the Evel Knievel" of supercomputing. At various times, he was all three-a master craftsman, inventor, and visionary whose disdain for the rigors of corporate life became legendary, and whose achievements remain unsurpassed.
The Supermen is award-winning writer Charles J. Murray's exhilarating account of how the brilliant-some would say eccentric-Cray and his gifted colleagues blazed the trail that led to the Information Age. This is a thrilling, real-life scientific adventure, deftly capturing the daring, seat-of-the-pants spirit of the early days of computer development, as well as an audacious, modern-day David and Goliath battle, in which a group of maverick engineers beat out IBM to become the runaway industry leaders.
Murray's briskly paced narrative begins during the final months of the Second World War, when men such as William Norris and Howard Engstrom began researching commercial applications for the code-breaking machines of wartime, and charts the rise of technological research in response to the Cold War. In those days computers were huge, cumbersome machines with names like Demon and Atlas. When Cray came on board, things quickly changed.
Drawing on in-depth interviews-including the last interview Cray completed before his untimely and tragic death-Murray provides rare insight into Cray's often controversial approach to his work. Cray could spend exhausting hours in single-minded pursuit of a particular goal, and Murray takes us behind the scenes to witness late-night brainstorming sessions and miraculous eleventh-hour fixes. Cray's casual, often hostile attitude toward management, although alienating to some, was more than a passionate need for independence; he simply thought differently than others. Seymour Cray saw farther and faster, and trusted his vision with an unassailable confidence. Yet he inspired great loyalty as well, making it possible for his own start-up company, Cray Research, to bring the 54,000-employee conglomerate of Control Data to its knees.
Ultimately, The Supermen is a story of genius, and how a unique set of circumstances-a small-team approach, corporate detachment, and a government-backed marketplace-enabled that genius to flourish. In an atmosphere of unparalleled freedom and creativity, Seymour Cray's vision and drive fueled a technological revolution from which America would emerge as the world's leader in supercomputing.
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Table of Contents
The Hog Trough.
The Cray Way.
The New Genius.
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'The Supermen' was an luridly enjoyable (though quick) read... but there were sufficient inaccuracies that I doubt its overall veracity. There are far better computing histories available, although this book is one of the few to go into any detail about the early Control Data years. The book portrays Seymour Cray as some sort of computing 'god'. He was very definitely a smart guy, but I think it was more a case of 'in the right place at the right time' rather than any particular skill that made him the legend he is today. The biggest issue with the book is the lack of understanding on the part of the author. For example, he should've known that Cray did not invent the magnetic switch; An Wang (and Jay Forrester at around the same time) came up with the idea years before Cray suggested using it. Cray's idea of using out-of-spec transistors in logic circuits had been done before. He is attributed with many feats that are inherently impossible and/or absurd. Etc. I was able to identify many factual inaccuracies with the book without even trying. Cray was a self-promoter of the first magnitude, but a rather poor engineer. He had a few successes, in particular the CDC-160 and CDC-6600, but as time went on he was increasingly out of his depth. The success of Cray-1 was more a miracle (aided by many dedicated engineers) than any particular stroke of genius, and his subsequent designs ended up on the scrap heap of excess complexity. Nothing personal against Cray or the author, but this is a rather expensive book given the problems with it. For a far better look at the early years of computing, I'd suggest 'Building IBM' or 'Makin' Numbers: Howard Aiken and the Computer'. I'd love to see a factual and comprehensive book about the supercomputer era and its subsequent demise, but this isn't even close.
This is a great book, conveying much of the flavor of what it was like to be in the midwest's computing culture in its heyday of the 60's through the 70's. What it failed to do was tell the real story of the midwest's demise as computing leader of the world -- which isn't the story of Seymour's obsession with packaging over on-chip integration, as implied by this book. Rather it is the story of the failure to deploy the network revolution, now embodied in the Internet, to the mass market 20 years early on Seymour's matured hardware via the PLATO networking project at Control Data Corporation. PLATO was a $1 billion 'bet the company' investment by Bill Norris, the farmer/CEO of CDC who put a windmill pump from his Nebraska farm in front of CDC's corporate towers to remind people where they came from. That is the story of epic proportions only grazed on by this book. PLATO was ready to go to mass market, but Wall Street combined with classic middle mismanagement killed the mass market version of PLATO before it could even be test marketed -- for which it was ready. Had it gone otherwise, Seymour probably would never have left the midwest, and his supercomputer architecture would have focused more on the directions now being taken by Sun and Hewlett Packard -- except with Seymour's inimitable qualities. I personally worked with the PLATO project and tested a version of it that would have leased a network computer with Macintosh-like interface, including network service, for a flat rate of $40/month with capital payback in 3 years. It had everything -- email, conferencing, user-programmable electronic commerce, multiuser realtime graphics games not to mention thousands of hours of computer based education courseware for which the PLATO system was originally designed. We could get this performance because the culture surrounding the land grant colleges of the midwest, such as the University of Illinois where PLATO originated, combined with Seymour's astounding performance levels created the right tradeoffs between hardware/software. Some of us were looking forward to incorporating Seymour's newly marketed Cray-1 as the foundation for the next generation of mass-market PLATO system -- and initial benchmarks looked to provide an outstanding bang for the buck as an information utility hub -- even without some of the more obvious architectural optimizations that would help in this new kind of application of his systems. This would have shielded Seymour from the vargaries of the government-dominated supercomputer market and driven his architectures into higher levels of silicon integration faster -- possibly providing the kind of capital in the kind of organization that could have delivered on gallium arsenide's potential, unlike the disaster that occured when Seymour left his farm and went cheek-to-cheek with the military in Colorado Springs, CO. If you look at your Internet Explorer Help menu and select About Internet Explorer, you'll notice it is based on the NCSA Mosaic web browser and that it was developed at the University of Illinois -- right across the street from where PLATO was invented. This was no fluke. PLATO had a profound impact on the culture of the University of Illinois particularly its young students who wanted to push the envelope in networking. The NCSA also gave rise the most widely used web server, Apache, and the the founders of Netscape. The loss of possibly 20 years of 'new economy' is incalculable, but suffice to say, comparable losses have been suffered as the result of open war. There are a lot of anecdotes this book doesn't tell that will probably die with the people who lived the tale. Just one, to capture a bit of what will be lost to history: People looking for Cray Research's facility in the fields of Wisconsin could drive up to a farm house and ask where 'Cray Reserach' was located and friendly neighbor would say, 'Oh, you mean Seymour's place...' and then