Seattle Dominates the Computer World!

Seattle needs a better name than “Emerald City.”  Every time I hear that dumb name, I think of Oz.  Seattle should be called Cloud City!   

Seattle-based Cray to build world’s fastest supercomputer under $600M federal contract

This big Seattle story brings the history of Microsoft in the 60s together with the history of supercomputing.                                            Back in those times, computers were huge things housed in special rooms with terminals scattered across the enterprise.  John Kemeny, the President of  Dartmouth, decided that ordinary folks should be able to talk to these monsters and developed the computer language basic. Students at Dartmouth could now program from their dorms!                    Then, in the 70s, a group of engineers in New Mexico had the idea that a calculator chip could be used to create a microcomputer  that could sit on desk!  The ALTAIR!                      Meanwhile, two geeks , Paul Allen in Seattle and his chum Bill Gates at Harvard, had the weird idea that Kermeny’s BASIC could be rewritten to run on the tiny ALTAIR.  The result was MICRO BASIC.   MICROSOFT BASIC created a world where microcomputers, running on single chips, could displace many of the big machines,.  !        Meanwhile in Wisconsin,. Seymour Cray was one of a group of pioneers who decided that collections of microchips could make supercomputers able to crunch massive data by using many chips acting in parallel.  Coming from Minnesota, Cray worked for the key companies that built the first very large computers including UNIVAC and the  Control Data Corporation (CDC) machines CDC 6600 and CDC 7600.  In 1972, seeing a way to build more powerful machines based on multiple cpus.  Cray began creating his own machines in a  garage at his home town in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.                                                         The Cray-1 supercomputer, was faster than all other computers at the time.   Cray used proprietary chips while a  series of competitors, including Tera Computing,  also built massively parallel computers that eventually became faster than Cray machines.  Burton Smith, later my neighbor on Capitol Hill and a senior fellow at Microsoft,   co-founded Tera Computer Company and from 1988 until 2005 he served as Tera’s chief scientist and chairman.  In 2000, Tera acquired the Cray Research business unit from Silicon Graphics,renamed itself Cray Inc. and moved to Seattle. 

It may well be that the history of the 21st century will be a tale of Seattle vs Beijing. Today, the worldwide network of computers, the “cloud”  is controlled by three companies in Seattle. Outside of China, all three world wide clouds are based at Microsoft, Amazon and our local branch of Google.

The dominance of Seattle in the cloud and in the even bigger world of computers begins fifty years ago and includes a story about my own neighborhood on Capitol Hill.

Seattle is best known for the microcomputer business founded by Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Steve Balmer, in the 1980s.  Gates was an undergraduate at Harvard when an issue of Popular Electronics described the first desktop computer, the Altair.  Because the Altair was based on a single, simple calculator chip, the machine was cheap.

The world of the microcomputer as more than a hobby tool began when Allan and Gates wrote a simple computer language, MICROBASIC. MICROBASIC  allowed people to write software that could run on a single chip inside a desktop computer.  The descendants of that desktop box include today’s PCs and Macs.

A very different story went on, at the same time, in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.  An engineer, Seymour Cray, pioneered big computers based on huge numbers of computer chips. People like Seymour Cray began building supercomputers where massive numbers of chips could work in parallel.

These machines needed a new language, a different kind of language that could control huge numbers of chips acting in parallel.  My neighbor Burt Smith, was one of the pioneers creating languages that could act on massively parallel computers.

Burt’s part of the story changed when he lived in Cambridge Mass and helped found Tera computing.  Tera later acquired Cray and moved its supercomputer business to Seattle, Tera’s head, Burt Smith was a neighbor on our street.

Microsoft realized that the desktop world and the supercomputer world would have to merge.  Burt became a senior fellow at Microsoft.

Today China and the US see supercomputer supremacy as critical to their respective nations’ security and the dominance of Chinese and American corporations in global business. Two new machines from Seattle-based Cray are key to the US effort.  The Cray machines will perform more than a quintillion calculations per second, a sevenfold increase over the current fastest machine.  This is no svelte desktop machine, it will be as big as  35 school buses and use prodigious amounts of electricity to just think about fusion energy, the global climate, and how can Amazon sell more tchotchkes.  Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced that the new machine “will ensure our country’s ability to lead the world in science that improves the lives and economic prosperity of all Americans and the entire world,”

Burt Smith

Meanwhile, the machines are also key to artificial intelligence (A.I.).  When I ask Alexa what should I wear today, “she” represents a world wide web of cpu chips working together.

Sadly Burth Smith died a year ago on April 2, 2018. His house on our block just sold.  As for Cray, its home office is here in Seattle but only 120 of its 1,300 employees work there. The rest are in other offices and a manufacturing facility in Chippewa Falls, Wis.

0 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Bill Doors #

    Incredibly dumb and ignorant (and poorly written) as usual. Almost nothing you say is correct. Microsoft didn’t start in the 1960’s. The founder of MITS, which built the Altair, was not an engineer and later became a physician (a real doctor). The Intel 8080 was not a calculator chip; it defines the basic architecture of their current CPUs. Cray supercomputers, while Cray was living, did not use parallel architecture. I could go on.

  2. theaveeditor #

    Hunhhh? Where does the post say
    “Microsoft began in the sixties?”
    As for ALTAIR try WIKI, it was more than one guy and .. whatever you call him, at that point building a microcomputer from as calculator chip was engineering.
    As for the chip in the Altair, in those old days we had programmable calculators. We did not have computers except huge room size things. And the chips were used in the calculators.
    But, then what do I know. I am not some troll to ashamed of himself to use a real email address.

  3. theaveeditor #

    Another phony us8ng a fake email address.
    Address not found
    Your message wasn’t delivered to because the address couldn’t be found, or is unable to receive mail.

  4. GB basic #

    Don’t have to read the Wiki, dude. Lived it. Created it. You’re wrong–as usual.

    There were microcomputers before the Altair. Alto anyone? SWTPC, too. Not to mention minis. 8080 was third generation Intel. Carl Helmers, go talk to Carl. One of your colleagues at the UW was a pioneer, though better known for other stuff.

    Your dogged determination to track down posters is all the more reason to stay upwind from you.

  5. theaveeditor #

    You are funny. I did not direct you to a Wiki, I directed you to my post. My post does have links.

    Nor did I say there were not computers before the Altair, of course, there were. They were just very much centered around a small community of experts.

    Nor did I say that if it were not Kemeny, Gates, Altain. Kildall, Bricklin and Bob Frankston there would not have been a microcomputer revolution. Maybe DEC, Intel, IBM, or even Radio Shack would have figured it out. Of course without Edison, we would have had electricity .. maybe better electricity thanks to Tesla! Gosh, maybe Xerox Parc with Alan Kay, Adele Goldberg and Dan Ingalls would have given us HAL!

    As for as my being obsessed with your address, for what it is worth THE-Ave does get a lot of troll from anonymous IP has at least some of those turn out to be an individual in South Carolina. The same person or someone with an IP address close by has at least once hacked this site. Of course, I am into saying you are he.she.
    I d enjoy discussing computer history. Go at it ifyou like! .