Who invented supercomputers? A supercomputer timeline

In the  history of computers and you’ll notice something straight away: no single individual can lay claim to inventing these amazing machines. Arguably, that’s much less true of supercomputers, which are widely acknowledged to owe a huge debt to the work of a single man, Seymour Cray (1925–1996). Here’s a whistle stop tour of super computing, BC and AC—before and after Cray!

Cray-2 C-shaped supercomputer unit

Photo: The distinctive C-shaped processor unit of a Cray-2 supercomputer. Picture courtesy of NASA Image Exchange (NIX).

  • 1946: John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert construct ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) at the University of Pennsylvania. The first general-purpose, electronic computer, it’s about 25m (80 feet) long and weighs 30 tons and, since it’s deployed on military-scientific problems, is arguably the very first scientific supercomputer.
  • 1953: IBM develops its first general-purpose mainframe computer, the IBM 701 (also known as the Defense Calculator), and sells about 20 of the machines to a variety of government and military agencies. The 701 is arguably the first off-the-shelf supercomputer. IBM engineer Gene Amdahl later redesigns the machine to make the IBM 704, a machine capable of 5 KFLOPS (5000 FLOPS).
  • 1956: IBM develops the Stretch supercomputer for Los Alamos National Laboratory. It remains the world’s fastest computer until 1964.
  • 1957: Seymour Cray co-founds Control Data Corporation (CDC) and pioneers fast, transistorized, high-performance computers, including the CDC 1604 (announced 1958) and 6600 (released 1964), which seriously challenge IBM’s dominance of mainframe computing.
  • 1972: Cray leaves Control Data and founds Cray Research to develop high-end computers—the first true supercomputers. One of his key ideas is to reduce the length of the connections between components inside his machines to help make them faster. This is partly why early Cray computers are C-shaped, although the unusual circular design (and bright blue or red cabinets) also helps to distinguish them from competitors.
  • 1976: First Cray-1 supercomputer is installed at Los Alamos National Laboratory. It manages a speed of about 160 MFLOPS.
  • 1979: Cray develops an ever faster model, the eight-processor, 1.9 GFLOP Cray-2. Where wire connections in the Cray-1 were a maximum of 120cm (~4 ft) long, in the Cray-2 they are a mere 41cm (16 inches).
  • 1983: Thinking Machines Corporation unveils the massively parallel Connection Machine, with 64,000 parallel processors.
  • 1989: Seymour Cray starts a new company, Cray Computer, where he develops the Cray-3 and Cray-4.
  • 1990s: Cuts in defense spending and the rise of powerful RISC workstations, made by companies such as Silicon Graphics, pose a serious threat to the financial viability of supercomputer makers.
  • 1993: Fujitsu Numerical Wind Tunnel becomes the world’s fastest computer using 166 vector processors.
  • 1994: Thinking Machines files for bankruptcy protection.
  • 1995: Cray Computer runs into financial difficulties and files for bankruptcy protection. Tragically, Seymour Cray dies on October 5, 1996, after sustaining injuries in a car accident.
  • 1996: Cray Research (Cray’s original company) is purchased by Silicon Graphics.
  • 1997: ASCI Red, a supercomputer made from Pentium processors by Intel and Sandia National Laboratories, becomes the world’s first teraflop (TFLOP) supercomputer.
  • 1997: IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer beats Gary Kasparov at chess.
  • 2008: The Jaguar supercomputer built by Cray Research and Oak Ridge National Laboratory becomes the world’s first petaflop (PFLOP) scientific supercomputer. Briefly the world’s fastest computer, it is soon superseded by machines from Japan and China.
  • 2011–2013: Jaguar is extensively (and expensively) upgraded, renamed Titan, and briefly becomes the world’s fastest supercomputer before losing the top slot to the Chinese machine Tianhe-2.
  • 2014: Mont-Blanc, a European consortium, announces plans to build an exaflop (1018 FLOP) supercomputer from energy efficient smartphone and tablet processors.
  • 2017: Chinese scientists announce they will soon unveil the prototype of an exaflop supercomputer, expected to be based on Tianhe-2.
  • 2018: In June 2018, Oak Ridge’s new Summit 200-petaflop supercomputer recaptured the number one spot in the TOP500 ranking of the world’s 500 fastest supercomputers for the United States.
  • 2020: Although the US holds four of the top 10 positions in the TOP500, China dominates the list as a whole: in June 2020, it led the United States by 226 machines to 114; in 2017 it led by 202 to 143, and a year earlier, both countries boasted 171 machines each.
  • 2020: Japan’s Fugaku becomes the world’s top supercomputer, with a blistering performance of 415.5 petaflops (almost three times better than Summit, the previous record holder). Fugaku is installed at RIKEN Center for Computational Science (R-CCS) in Kobe, Japan.

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