Seymour Cray

Seymour Cray, recognized as the "father of supercomputing," built the iconic Cray®-1 and led the supercomputing industry for decades.

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Seymour Cray (1925-1996)

“I was one of those nerds before the name was popular,” he told a Smithsonian Institution interviewer.

A Man Whose Vision Changed the World

Recognized as “the father of supercomputing” and credited with single-handedly creating and leading the high performance computing industry for decades, Seymour R. Cray was a dedicated and focused computer engineer, regarded by some as a true maverick and “serial” pioneer. Jokingly, he would refer to himself as “an overpaid plumber.”

The beginnings

Born Sept. 28, 1925, in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, Seymour had a fascination with electronics and electrical devices from boyhood. In high school the young Cray preferred to be in the electrical engineering laboratory as much as possible. “I was one of those nerds before the name was popular,” he told a Smithsonian Institution interviewer. “I spent all my time in the electrical engineering laboratory and not enough time socializing.”

Following graduation from high school in 1943, he joined the U.S. Army, serving in an infantry communications platoon. He arrived in Europe the day after D-Day and saw action in the Battle of the Bulge campaign. Later he served in the Pacific theater in the Philippine Islands.

After returning from the war, Seymour earned a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from the University of Minnesota, followed by a master’s degree in applied mathematics. Shortly thereafter, he joined a new company called Engineering Research Associates (ERA). Housed in an old glider factory in St. Paul, Minnesota, ERA built specialized cryptographic equipment for the U.S. Navy. Seymour worked the gamut of computer technologies, ranging from vacuum tubes and magnetic amplifiers to transistors. It was also here that he had the opportunity to design his first computer, the 1103.

The world’s first and fastest supercomputers

Seymour’s passion for building scientific computers led him to help start Control Data Corporation (CDC) in 1957. There he realized his goal of building the fastest scientific computer ever, the CDC 1604. It was the first fully transistorized commercial computer — he had eliminated vacuum tubes. Release of the CDC 6600, which was considered the world’s first actual supercomputer, followed in 1963. The CDC 6600 was capable of 9 megaflops (million floating-point operations per second) of processing power and was cooled by Freon. The CDC 7600 was next. Running at 40 megaflops, it in turn became the world’s fastest supercomputer.

In 1968 Seymour began work on the CDC 8600, designed for greater parallelism. It employed four processors, all sharing one memory. In 1968, he was awarded the W.W. McDowell Award by the American Foundation of Information Processing Societies for his work in the computer field.

Seymour served as a director of CDC from 1957 to 1965 and was senior vice president at the time of his departure in 1972, when CDC decided to phase out development of large-scale scientific computers. That year he founded Cray Research Inc. in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.

In 1972 the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) presented Seymour with the Harry H. Goode Memorial Award for his contributions to large-scale computer design and the development of multiprocessing systems. The IEEE created the annual Seymour Cray Computer Engineering Award in honor of Seymour’s “creative spirit” in 1997.

Vector processing is born

The signature Cray®-1 vector supercomputer established a world standard in supercomputing when it was unveiled in 1976. Integrated circuits replaced transistors, and the Cray-1 delivered 170 megaflops of processing speed.

In the years following CDC's founding, Seymour relinquished the company's management reins to devote more time to computer development. From 1972 to 1977 he served as director, chief executive officer and president of the company. In October 1977, he left the presidency of Cray Research, but remained chief executive officer and became chairman of the board. In 1980, he resigned as chief executive officer, and in 1981, Cray stepped aside as chairman of the board. As a full-time independent contractor, he devoted himself to the Cray-2 project.

In 1985 the Cray®-2 computer system moved supercomputing forward yet again, breaking the gigaflops (1,000 megaflops) barrier. With the Cray®-3, Seymour turned his attention to the possibilities of gallium arsenide processing chips and reduced packaging. But after experimenting with gallium arsenide as an ultrafast semiconductor material, Seymour returned to the use of silicon chips and introduced Flourinert, an inert fluorocarbon liquid, as a coolant.

In 1989 Seymour left Cray Research to form Cray Computer Corporation (CCC), based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Here he began work on the Cray®-4. CCC closed its doors in 1995 due to financial pressures.

In 1996 Seymour started SRC Computers, Inc., and started the design of his own massively parallel supercomputer, concentrating on the communications and memory performance. Tragically, on Oct. 5, 1996, at the age of 71, Seymour Cray passed away in Colorado Springs from injuries suffered in a car accident two weeks earlier.

Guided by simplicity

Throughout his 45-year career, simplicity was Cray’s guiding principle in designing computers. Seymour Cray is the inventor of a number of technologies that were patented by the companies he worked for. Among the most significant are the Cray-1 vector register technology, the cooling technologies for the Cray-2 computer, the CDC 6600 Freon-cooling system, and a magnetic amplifier for ERA. He also contributed to the Cray-1 cooling technology design.

Today, Cray Inc. strives to honor Seymour Cray’s legacy through continuous innovation and by helping organizations of all types solve their most complex computing and analytics challenges.

Anyone can build a fast CPU. The trick is to build a fast system.

– Seymour Cray

It seems impossible to exaggerate the effect he had on the industry; many of the things that high performance computers now do routinely were at the furthest edge of credibility when Seymour envisioned them. Seymour combined modesty, dedication and brilliance with vision and an entrepreneurial spirit in a way that places him high in the pantheon of great inventors in any field. He ranks up there with Edison and Bell of creating an industry.

– Joel Birnbaum, former CTO, Hewlett-Packard