Mike Schaeffer's Blog

May 17, 2005

For some reason, I've been thinking a lot lately about Seymour Cray. When I was growing up, I remember asking my dad about who made the fastest computers in the world, and the answer at the time was Cray. I don't know if he meant the man or the company, but for a while both were true. I suppose it made an impression.

I've found a bunch of good things online about the man and his work:

Reading through them, a couple of things made impressions on me:

  • He didn't mind throwing bad ideas away (or saving them for later). The Cray 1 took a very different approach from the CDC 8600.
  • Cray failed a lot. He was always pushing the limits and taking risks, and paid the price of those risks. The CDC 8600 failed, as did several designs for the Cray 2. The Cray 3 failed to sell, and the 4 doesn't seem to have hit the prototype stage at all. Even the Cray 2 doesn't seem to have been an unqualified success, thanks to issues with memory bandwidth.
  • He had a very 'startup mentality'. His career seems to be a repeating story of initial success, spin off lab, and spin off company.
  • A lot of his design problems weren't electronic at all. He seems to have struggled as much (if not more) with packaging and cooling as with anything else.
  • He had a keen sense of style. With the possible exception of the Connection Machine CM-1/2, his machines were the most visually striking of the major supercomputers. Maybe it's superficial, but it can't have hurt the sales or publicity.
  • He knew what he had accomplished. There's a story about his suprise when Steve Chen developed the X-MP from the Cray 1 and doubled (?) the performance. Of course, the story goes on to describe how Cray ended up appreciating the new design.

Anyway, I have nothing but the utmost respect for the man and his accomplishments. R.I.P, Mr. Cray.