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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 IBM is Big , Cray is Speed ! Cray is like Tesla ! Feb. 25 1999
By A Customer
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 .
This book is both chronological and narrative and at the same time concise . It makes it easy for people who know nuts about computer or engineering to understand what went on in the computer industry when it was at an infant stage . Readers thus have a thorough understanding of the industry from its humble beginning to the present and how Seymour Cray and his engineers had contributed to the industry .To put it simply , without Cray Super Computing might have taken a longer time to emerge. This book also reveals the rivalry that went on at Cray Research that eventually led to a split in the company . You will be surprised to find that bringing out a new product takes much more than just a technological break-through.If it is that simple Cray would have beaten IBM many times.
At the end , one would find Cray a rare genius who given the opportunity would have done much better .Unfortunately the circumstances he was in and his sole interest in engineering alone has limited his success . To me Seymour Cray is over and above Bill Gates and Tom Watson although he was much poorer than these two in the financial aspect . Like Nicholas Tesla , Cray was a better engineer than all his contemporaries but was bestowed with the least honours.To Cray , I salute you !
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3.0 out of 5 stars Good, but half as long as it should be Feb. 4 1999
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.
On one hand, it does provide a history of Seymour Cray, his companies, his machines, and some of the names surrounding them. There is no other single combined source for this material. Other reviewers commenting that you never <<really>> get to know the man have a point.
On the other hand, no details are provided about Cray's machines. How about architectural overviews from the 10,000 foot level? Or, how about zooming in, showing programming, gross datapaths, eventually to give details of his circuit designs to illustrate his published genius? Cray was a luminary for his contributions, and yet they are never really described. Material like this might also help the reader to better know Cray.
Even the pictures are few and imperfectly reproduced. Yes, a Cray 1 is shown, but not a Cray 2 (a photo does not identify him as leaning on one) and not a Cray 3.
In the absence of any other book about Cray, I give this a qualified recommendation.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great Inspirations Oct. 12 1997
By A Customer
I accidentally came across this while I was looking for some books on Computer Industry's Inspirations. I have heard about Cray Computers and knew a fair bit on it's ability but nothing too detailed. This book has swiftly, not too brief though, brought me up to date on the Cray computer's history and background. All thanks to the author who make as it as exciting as it could be.
From then on, I was totally immensed in the process of how the makers made the supercomputer possible. The inspiring tale of meeting datelines, of realigning focus, of human determination and lastly, of inspirations. It has been beautifully crafted by the author's words to allow the reader to see the whole event/s unveiled before one's eyes without it being too naggy or non-fiction.
I am by no way related to the author but I think it's only fair that I put in my two cents worth of my opinion for a good book.
If you are thinking of knowing more about Cray Computers or looking for a mortal example of human determination and inspirations.
DON'T miss this book.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars just wonderful!
This is just one of the best books I have ever read! The historic point of view is awesome!
Published on Jan. 29 2002 by Daniel A Lucio
5.0 out of 5 stars No one beats Seymour Cray
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... Read more
Published on March 8 2001 by Abraman
5.0 out of 5 stars Moving Story of Seymour Cray's Passion
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. Read more
Published on Oct. 28 2000 by David Gurgel
4.0 out of 5 stars Superb!
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. Read more
Published on Aug. 6 2000 by JB
5.0 out of 5 stars Best book on Supercomputer History
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. Read more
Published on Jan. 12 2000
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 13 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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