January 13, 2014

Museum to Resurrect First-Gen Supercomputer

Tiffany Trader
CDC 6500 Living Computer Museum

The Living Computer Museum in downtown Seattle recently welcomed a supercomputing classic to its collection. Arriving at the museum in three separate bays, tipping the scales at 4,000 lbs each, was a blast from supercomputing’s past: the CDC 6500 system, a first-generation supercomputer built by Control Data Corporation in 1967.

The CDC 6000 series machines were designed by the incomparable Seymour Cray in the 1960s. The CDC 6600, introduced in 1962* (and released in 1964) with a selling price of $8 million, was 10 times faster than any other computer of the day, giving rise to the term supercomputer. The revolutionary design included an interactive console, display and keyboard, a C-change from punch cards and magnetic tape. The 6400 and 6500 versions were basically value models, relying on less-performant CPUs to bring down the cost. Memory, peripheral processor-based I/O, and peripherals remained unchanged, however.

The museum’s engineering manager Robert Michaels and his team are in the process of restoring the supercomputer to its former operating glory. This is why the museum sought out this particular system because of its potential to be brought back to working order. In fact, the most notable feature about the Living Computer Museum – which was started by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen in 2012 – is that nearly all of the computers housed there actually work.

The CDC 6500, however, is the museum’s biggest project to date – both in size and complexity. The restoration will take about two years and there’s no guarantee of success. The central challenge is the refrigeration system. The CDC 6500 is liquid-cooled, not air-cooled, and each of system’s three bays has its own unit. These need to be brought back to working condition before the machine can be powered on.

The team must also replace a complex network of cables all the while adhering to strict authenticity mandates.

“We have to be careful about authenticity,” Michaels told Geekwire. “It’s so easy to emulate various functions of a system. You could easily replace one of these with a Raspberry Pi, and nobody could tell the difference. We want to adhere to authenticity. People have to know that this thing is really what it was.”

The system originally belonged to Purdue University. With less than half a megabyte of memory, it was the best technology in the world at the time, operating with transistors unlike earlier computers which used vacuum tubes.

After two decades at Purdue University, the supercomputer was decommissioned in 1989 and retired to the Museum of Industry and Technology in Chippewa Falls, Wisc., before being purchased by the Living Computer Museum for an undisclosed sum.

Interested parties can follow the CDC 6500 restoration project on the museum’s Facebook page.

*Update: Some sources say the system was announced in 1962, but according to an internal IBM memo from then CEO Thomas Watson Jr., dated August 1963, the CDC 6600 was first announced in 1963. Thanks to some astute Twitter followers for the clarification. Also thanks to Ryugo Hayano (@hayano) for sharing this fascinating video on the CDC 6600: https://cdsweb.cern.ch/record/43172

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