Who Invented the Computer? Seymour Cray

Who Invented the Computer? This is the thirty-ninth installment in our ongoing series.

Seymour Cray was driven to build faster computers.

An unwritten but widely accepted truth of all functioning and orderly societies is that you need people who obey the rules. These are the ones who quietly live their lives going to work and paying taxes.

But we also need a certain number of rule breakers. Not the ones who intentionally violate established laws, but the ones who color outside the lines, who have bold ideas and an ironclad determination to make them happen regardless of naysayers. These are the ones who through their actions move society forward.

One such maverick was Seymour R. Cray (1925-1996), an electrical engineer from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. As a boy, he was unusually intelligent with a proclivity to solve difficult mathematical equations. He also possessed an irresistible interest in science and engineering. His father, a civil engineer, supported those passions and helped Cray set up a basement laboratory equipped with a chemistry set and electrical components.

By the age of 10, young Cray had built a working automatic telegraph machine and in his senior year of high school, he received the prestigious Bausch & Lomb award for Meritorious Achievement in Science.

After a stint in the army as a breaker of enemy codes during World War II, Cray completed a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Minnesota and a master’s in applied mathematics.

The Need for Speed

Seymour Cray was driven to build faster computers.

In 1950 he began his career working for the Engineering Research Associates (ERA), a small company on the cutting edge of the computing industry. Cray quickly became the resident expert for digital computing technology, particularly as it pertained to speed. His desire, which he was always willing to share with anyone who would listen, was to create a computer that was 100 times faster than the fastest computers in existence.

During his time at ERA, Cray led the effort to develop a binary programming system that utilized magnetic core memory to enable the programming of 496,000 words. The Sperry Rand Corporation (Rand) eventually acquired ERA and Cray used the increased resources to design the UNIVAC 1103, the first electronic digital computer to be sold commercially.

Unfortunately, Rand, as all large organizations tend to be, was rather bureaucratic and after eight years of having his ideas and projects stifled by management, Cray left to join the Control Data Corporation (CDC) whose focus was building affordable computers.

CDC gave Cray free reign to work on his projects and in 1960 he replaced expensive and cumbersome vacuum tubes with transistors and came up with the CDC 1604. Another transistorized machine, the IBM 7090 came to market several months earlier, but proved unable to find a large customer base. The 1604 was a great fit for scientific research and sold well, making it the world’s first commercially successful transistorized computer.

During the next decade Cray’s genius would place CDC in the forefront of the computer industry. Along the way he developed the 6600, the most powerful computer at that time and the first to employ freon to cool its 350,000 transistors. He followed that with the 7600 model, considered to be the first ever supercomputer, it was able to perform 50 million computations per second.

Five-Year Plan

Seymour Cray was driven to build faster computers.

As CDC grew, so did its bureaucracy and levels of control over engineers and computer scientists. Cray soon chaffed under the excessive rules and procedures. When the CEO asked him to write up a five-year plan, Cray laid it out in a one sentence note: “To build the fastest computer in the world.”

The president asked if Cray could elaborate and share his one-year plan to which the unconventional engineer responded: “To achieve a fifth of my five-year plan.”

In 1972, Cray was deep in the development of the CDC 8600 when management informed him that because of financial problems they wouldn’t market the machine. In fairness to CDC, Cray was a demanding person, but the 8600 was the last straw. He resigned and two months later founded h­is own company, Cray Research, Inc. Free at last from bureaucratic bottlenecks, Seymour Cray set about fulfilling his dream — to build the fastest supercomputer possible.

Surprisingly, although CDC had lost Cray’s creative genius, they still believed in him enough to invest $500,000 in his venture.

Funds were tight at first, but Cray kept at it and in 1976 released the fastest computer on the planet, the Cray-1. It was an impressive creation. Ten times faster than IBM’s best machine, and with six times more memory, the Cray-1 was capable of performing 240 million calculations per second. Cray’s masterpiece was made possible by the successful implementation of a revolutionary vector processing approach that enabled it to simultaneously solve various parts of a problem.

The Letter C

Seymour Cray was driven to build faster computers.

A devoted fan of Star Trek, Cray wanted his supercomputer to be aesthetically pleasing. Cray-1 had an unusual design. It was shaped like a six-foot high letter “C.”  The unusual shape allowed for shorter wires to minimize signal delays between the 1,500 printed circuits modules that were housed in 12 paneled columns. Cray also included freon cooling tubes to remove the heat coming from the tightly-packed circuits.

The computer’s power supply was creatively hidden beneath a bench that ran along the bottom of the computer, and customers could select the color of the upholstery.

Financially strapped, the company needed to sell a dozen machines to stay in business. Fortunately, a bidding war erupted for the first Cray-1 model. It was sold to the National Center for Atmospheric Research for $8.8 million. As demand for a supercomputer sky-rocketed, Cray’s company would eventually sell more than 100 machines.

The Cray team didn’t rest on its laurels; in 1985 they released the Cray-2, which was 10 times faster than its predecessor. The new machine featured a phenomenal two-billion byte memory and was capable of 1.2 billion operations per second.

The Father of Supercomputers

Cray never stopped looking for ways to increase the speed of his computers, at one point he experimented with Gallium Arsenide chips.

The field of supercomputers suffered a great loss in 1996 when Cray’s car was struck by another vehicle and rolled three times. He died from his injuries three weeks later on October 5.

Seymour Cray is rightly called the Father of Supercomputers. When the Cray-1 was introduced and sold, industry experts joked that it was the most expensive love seat ever. The wisecracks never bothered him, he had achieved his dream of creating supercomputers that are still being used in cutting-edge science and research all around the world.

Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
Calvin Harper

Calvin Harper is a writer, editor, and publisher who has covered a variety of topics across more than two decades in media. Calvin is a former GoCertify associate editor.