Seymour Cray

From Academic Kids

Seymour Roger Cray (September 28, 1925 - October 5, 1996) was a supercomputer architect who founded the company Cray Research. For about 30 years, the short answer to the question "What company makes the fastest computer?" was "Wherever Seymour Cray is working now."

He was born in 1925 in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. He graduated from high school in 1943 before being drafted into World War II and seeing action in both Europe and the Pacific theatre. On his return to the United States he took a B.Sc in Electrical Engineering at the University of Minnesota, graduating in 1950. He also gained a M.Sc in Applied Mathematics in 1951.

In 1950, Cray joined Engineering Research Associates in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Cray quickly came to be regarded as an expert on digital computer technology, especially following his design work on the ERA 1103, the first commercially successful scientific computer. He remained at ERA as it was bought by Remington Rand and then Sperry Corporation in the early 1950s. At the newly-formed Sperry-Rand, ERA became the "scientific computing" arm of their UNIVAC division.

But when the scientific computing division was phased out in 1957, a number of employees left to form Control Data Corporation (CDC). Cray wanted to follow immediately, but William Norris refused as Cray was in the midst of completing a project for the US Navy, with whom Norris was interested in maintaining a good relationship. The project, the Navy Tactical Data System, was completed early the next year and Cray left for CDC as well. By 1960 he had completed the design of the CDC 1604, an improved low-cost ERA 1103 that had impressive performance for its price range.

Even as the CDC 1604 was starting to ship in 1960, he had already moved on to designing its "replacement", the CDC 6600. Although in terms of hardware the 6600 was not on the leading edge, Cray invested considerable effort into the design of the processor. The 6600 was the first commercial supercomputer, outperforming everything then available by a wide margin. When other companies (namely IBM) attempted to create machines with similar performance, he simply upped the bar by releasing the 5-times faster CDC 7600.

During this period Cray had become increasingly annoyed at what he saw as corporate interference from CDC management, and decided that in order to continue development he would have to move from St. Paul and get away as far as possible. After some debate, Norris backed him and set up a new lab on land he owned in his home town of Chippewa Falls. Here he worked on the 7600, and started development of its replacement, the CDC 8600.

His run of successes at CDC finally ended in 1972. Although the 6600 and 7600 had been huge successes in the end, both projects had almost bankrupted the company while they were being designed. The 8600 was running into similar difficulties and Cray eventually decided that the only solution was to start over fresh. This time Norris wasn't willing to take the risk, and another project within the company, the CDC STAR-100 seemed to be making progress. Norris delivered the bad news, and Cray left the company.

The split was fairly amicable, and when he started Cray Research in a new lab on the same property a year later, Norris invested $300,000 in start-up money. In a reversal of CDC's operations, R&D and manufacturing were based in Chippewa Falls while the business headquarters were in Minneapolis. After several years of development their first product was released in 1976 as the Cray-1, easily beating all but the ILLIAC IV in performance. Serial number 001 was "lent" to Los Alamos in 1976, and that summer the first full system was sold to NCAR for $8.8 million.

From there success was not so easy. While he worked on the Cray-2, other teams delivered the four-processor Cray X-MP, which was a huge success. When the Cray-2 was finally released after six years of development it was only marginally faster than the X-MP, largely due to very fast memory, and thus sold in much smaller numbers. As the Cray-3 project started he found himself in familiar territory, and in order to concentrate on design, Cray left the CEO position of Cray Research in 1980 to become an independent contractor, working from a new lab in Colorado Springs, Colorado, near the site of NCAR.

In 1989 Cray was faced with a repeat of past history when the Cray-3 started to run into difficulties. An upgrade of the X-MP using high-speed memory from the Cray-2 was under development and seemed to be making real progress, and once again management was faced with two projects and limited budgets. Cray decided to spin off the Colorado Springs lab to form Cray Computer Corporation, taking the Cray-3 project with them.

The 500 MHz Cray-3 was to prove Cray's first commercial failure. While working on the 1 GHz Cray-4, using gallium arsenide semiconductors, the company ran out of money and was forced to file for bankruptcy in 1995. Cray set up a new company, SRC Computers, but died of injuries suffered in an car accident on October 5, 1996 aged 71. Ironically the vehicle he was driving, a Jeep Cherokee, had been designed using a Cray supercomputer.

In 1996 Cray Research was bought by Silicon Graphics, and eventually the division was merged with Tera Computer Company to form Cray Inc.

Beyond the design of computers Cray led a "streamlined life". He avoided publicity and there are a number of unusual tales about his life away from work. While he enjoyed skiing, wind surfing, tennis and other sports.

When in 1986 Apple bought a Cray X-MP and announced that they would use it to design the next Apple Macintosh, Seymour Cray replied, "This is very interesting because I am using an Apple Macintosh to design the Cray-2 supercomputer."

Another favorite pastime was digging tunnels and he once attributed the secret to his success to the elves that talked to him in his cave. "While I'm digging in the tunnel, the elves will often come to me with solutions to my problem", he said.

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