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The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer [Hardcover]

Charles J. Murray
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 18 1997

"After a rare speech at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, in 1976, programmers in the audience had suddenly fallen silent when Cray offered to answer questions. He stood there for several minutes, waiting for their queries, but none came. When he left, the head of NCAR's computing division chided the programmers. 'Why didn't someone raise a hand?' After a tense moment, one programmer replied, 'How do you talk to God?'" -from The SUPERMEN The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards behind the Supercomputer

"They were building revolutionary, not evolutionary, machines. . . . They were blazing a trail-molding science into a product. . . . The freedom to create was extraordinary." -from The Supermen

In 1951, a soft-spoken, skinny young man fresh from the University of Minnesota took a job in an old glider factory in St. Paul. Computer technology would never be the same, for the glider factory was the home of Engineering Research Associates and the recent college grad was Seymour R. Cray. During his extraordinary career, Cray would be alternately hailed as "the Albert Einstein," "the Thomas Edison," and "the Evel Knievel" of supercomputing. At various times, he was all three-a master craftsman, inventor, and visionary whose disdain for the rigors of corporate life became legendary, and whose achievements remain unsurpassed.

The Supermen is award-winning writer Charles J. Murray's exhilarating account of how the brilliant-some would say eccentric-Cray and his gifted colleagues blazed the trail that led to the Information Age. This is a thrilling, real-life scientific adventure, deftly capturing the daring, seat-of-the-pants spirit of the early days of computer development, as well as an audacious, modern-day David and Goliath battle, in which a group of maverick engineers beat out IBM to become the runaway industry leaders.

Murray's briskly paced narrative begins during the final months of the Second World War, when men such as William Norris and Howard Engstrom began researching commercial applications for the code-breaking machines of wartime, and charts the rise of technological research in response to the Cold War. In those days computers were huge, cumbersome machines with names like Demon and Atlas. When Cray came on board, things quickly changed.

Drawing on in-depth interviews-including the last interview Cray completed before his untimely and tragic death-Murray provides rare insight into Cray's often controversial approach to his work. Cray could spend exhausting hours in single-minded pursuit of a particular goal, and Murray takes us behind the scenes to witness late-night brainstorming sessions and miraculous eleventh-hour fixes. Cray's casual, often hostile attitude toward management, although alienating to some, was more than a passionate need for independence; he simply thought differently than others. Seymour Cray saw farther and faster, and trusted his vision with an unassailable confidence. Yet he inspired great loyalty as well, making it possible for his own start-up company, Cray Research, to bring the 54,000-employee conglomerate of Control Data to its knees.

Ultimately, The Supermen is a story of genius, and how a unique set of circumstances-a small-team approach, corporate detachment, and a government-backed marketplace-enabled that genius to flourish. In an atmosphere of unparalleled freedom and creativity, Seymour Cray's vision and drive fueled a technological revolution from which America would emerge as the world's leader in supercomputing.

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From Amazon

The story of supercomputing is only partially about technology. More than anything, it's about the gifted, brilliant, and often eccentric individuals who knew how to use that technology in new ways to do amazing things. Perhaps the most amazing of the bunch was Seymour Cray, the bureaucracy-intolerant genius with the barnstorming mind whose name has become synonymous with supercomputers. Charles Murray gives us an insightful and often thrilling and sometimes amusing look into how Cray and his genius companions took computers to new heights and humbled companies like Control Data and IBM.

From Publishers Weekly

Before Bill Gates ever tinkered with an operating system, one name represented the cutting edge of computing technology: Seymour Cray. He pioneered the supercomputer and honed that edge through each model he engineered, including those built under the auspices of two companies he founded-Control Data Corporation and Cray Research. In this engrossing study, Murray, a senior editor at Design News magazine, follows the development and influence of the supercomputer from its origins as a WWII codebreaking machine through its Cold War application in developing nuclear weapons to its modern-day uses in weather research and other fields. Along the way, he shows clearly how the supercomputer brought us from the age of punchcards and vacuum tubes to that of transistors and, now, silicon chips. Drawing from extensive interviews, including the final one Cray gave before his death earlier this year from injuries sustained in a car crash, Murray also explores the personal side of the engineer, whose reputation as a brilliant, anti-corporate workaholic gave him legendary status in the computer industry. Murray's prose emphasizes information over liveliness, but his book, with its balanced mix of biography, history and technology, should interest more general readers as well as the digerati.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fun to read, but really lacking in detail Sept. 23 2005
I'll give this book high marks for providing a readable and fast moving business history. This isn't always easy to do, because it's difficult to know what's important and what's fluff that's only going to slow the narative down. I'd say this book has found a nice balance, and I could fly through it withough getting bored.
On the other hand, it's utterly devoid of any technical detail. Now one might argue this isn't really needed, but we're talking about the story of a supercomputer vendor! The machines, ones that changed the computer landscape forever, are basically ignored. This is a story of making the machines, not the machines themselves -- but let's be honest, this IS a story about the machines!
To put this in some sort of perspective, I read a Cray quote (perhaps originally due to Amdahl) that I thought was extremely insightful (here's hoping I get it right); "a megaflop of computing power needs a megaword of memory per second". This single statement sums up everything that made Cray's designs a string of successes, and the vast majority of its competition failures -- it doesn't make a difference how fast the processor is if it runs out of data. Cray's genius was to make machines where every part of the machine was up to snuff, not just the processor, but the memory, disks, everything.
Nothing of this sort comes up in the book anywhere. There's some discussion of experiments with transistors here, and talking about Cray's work habits there, but the success of his machines is left to some sort of magical supergenius, as opposed to the real story which I think is much more interesting. This is about hard work and clear vision. When one examines the failures of competing machines, like the STAR or ILLIAC IV, they invariably fell because they concentrated on only one part of the puzzle.
So I have to say I found this book to be easy to read, but generally information-lite.
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5.0 out of 5 stars just wonderful! Jan. 29 2002
This is just one of the best books I have ever read! The historic point of view is awesome!
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5.0 out of 5 stars Moving Story of Seymour Cray's Passion Oct. 28 2000
Few biographies of computer heavyweights have moved me like this short, 232-page volume. This book is a nicely written chronicle of Seymour Cray and his supercomputing associates. The book covers Cray's entire professional career - from Cray's early days with pioneering Engineering Research Associates until his death (from injuries in an auto accident) in 1996 as he struggled to reinvent the glory days of super-computing with a new company, SRC (Seymour Roger Cray) Computers.
By the way, as a native of Minnesota and Wisconsin, it was pleasant to recall that Control Data and Cray Computing made the area around St. Paul (Wisconsin is just across the river) one of the hottest technology areas for two decades.
Cray was totally absorbed in computing. If you share some of his passion, you will love this. Non-tech types will not enjoy it and will wonder why he did not "get a life."
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5.0 out of 5 stars No one beats Seymour Cray March 8 2001
By Abraman
Seymour Cray carves a special place in the history of computing. No other super computing companies / personalities can rival his achievement (name one that survives more than 3 decades). This book chronicles the life and time of Seymour Cray. It depicts how one man's devotion to attain the highest speed in computing produces a series of remarkable machine. Anyone would wish that the guy is still around building newer machines.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Superb! Aug. 6 2000
I give it four stars because this book did not mention enough details. It will be good if the author showed us why Seymour Cray would spent so much time on transistors. Why he thought ICs were not reliable? Why used ICs with sow few gates? Why he was so skeptical to new toys at first, but then used GaAs, a compound that's just too painful to handle.
However, it's still a great book to read. I couldn't put it down.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Best book on Supercomputer History Jan. 13 2000
By A Customer
If you are into high preformance computing and still think that it just sort of happend all at once and had no begining then buy this book. We owe almost all of our computer advances to Seymore Cray and what he did for Computer Science. When you look at Chip or a computer you will always see his work in there somewhere. That's why you should get this book for your own enlightenment about CS History.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars IBM is Big , Cray is Speed ! Cray is like Tesla !
If you have no idea what super-computer is , this is the book that you have to read , after that you will know more than just IBM the next time someone mention about computer... Read more
Published on Feb. 25 1999
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, but half as long as it should be
I'm divided about this book. The average public will find it a bit dry and the above average computer scientist will find it lacking in depth. Read more
Published on Feb. 4 1999 by C. James Cook
5.0 out of 5 stars The Supermen, what happened behind the scenes
"The Supermen" describes the early days of supercomputing, from the ERA developments (50's), Control Data's 1604 (a mindblowing 0. Read more
Published on May 28 1998 by blaauwen@global.co.za
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Read about Super Computing
By far, this book is a must read for any computer enthusiast. From the early days of drum hard drives through nuclear explosion modeling, The Supermen will captivate your mind and... Read more
Published on Dec 14 1997
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Inspirations
I accidentally came across this while I was looking for some books on Computer Industry's Inspirations. Read more
Published on Oct. 12 1997
4.0 out of 5 stars Dramatic tale of the history of supercomputing
If you follow supercomputing whatsoever, this is a must-read. The narrative, while a little superficial when dealing with a few technical aspects, is superb in weaving the tale of... Read more
Published on March 10 1997
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