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November 4, 2013

SC Flashback: Seymour Cray on Gallium Arsenide

In advance of this year’s Supercomputing Conference in Denver, Colorado, and in celebration of the event’s 25th anniversary, we’ll be doing some looking back on the great history of supercomputing. We can’t think of a better way to do this than with a speech from the father of supercomputing himself: Seymour Cray.

In 1972, Seymour Cray founded Cray Research Incorporated and was responsible for the design of the Cray-I, Cray-II and Cray-III systems. For decades, Cray built the fastest systems in the world, including Cray-1, which was the first vector supercomputer. The Cray-3 was to achieve a magnitude higher performance by employing Gallium Arsenide instead of silicon, but ultimately the innovative material created more problems than it solved.

At the 1988 Supercomputing Conference in Orlando, Florida, Seymour Cray delivered a lecture entitled, “What’s All this About Gallium Arsenide?” A video of his engaging lecture survives for posterity on Youtube. Norman Morse of Los Alamos National Laboratory introduced Seymour Cray to the stage. In the early 1970s, when Cray Research was still in its infancy, the major organizations interested in supercomputing were fairly limited, explained Morse. Some of those organizations included the Department of Energy laboratories, of which Los Alamos was one, aerospace agencies and the National Security Agency.

At the time of this recording, about two decades later, interest in supercomputing had grown considerably. By 1988, there were several hundred supercomputers scattered throughout the world, with many organizations using supercomputers to support their activities.

In this video Seymour Cray, in good humor, covers a wide range of topics including pulse technology, magnetic circuit paths, and the scalar properties of gallium arsenide when used as a semiconductor. This important piece of history reveals a man with deep technical knowledge, as he describes Cray supercomputers from the first vector supercomputer, Cray-1, to the innovative ideas that comprised the Cray-3.

Cray Roadmap as of 1988

Cray_roadmap_1988