=Subscribers Only



SPORTS
Golf Lifestyle

BOOKS
Reviews & Excerpts


BOOK EXCERPT

The Supermen
The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards behind the Supercomputer

By Charles J. Murray

John Wiley & Sons

(C) 1997Charles J. Murray
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-471-04885-2







CHAPTER ONE

The Codebreakers


For six days U-66 poked and prodded the gray water of the Atlantic Ocean, frantically searching for a place to surface, but the ships were always there. At any time of day or night the planes and ships would close in, and the crew of the U-boat would flee for their lives, hoping to find a safe haven.

    Now they were surfacing again. Kapitänleutnant Gerhard Seehausen, the U-boat's commander, would have preferred to come up at another time, in another place, but he was running out of options. Here in the mid Atlantic on the moonlit night of May 5, 1944, U-boat life was dangerous, but this was incredible. Everyplace U-66 went, it was hounded. It could barely surface without being stalked. Time was running out. Seehausen's U-boat could go no further without running its power generators, which provided electricity and light, and it needed to rendezvous with a refueling sub.

    With his U-boat at the water's surface off the Cape Verde Islands, Seehausen quickly sent a message to the radio room. The radio operator typed the message into a machine called Enigma, which scrambled its text; then he broadcast it to Berlin by tapping it out in Morse code: "Refueling impossible under constant stalking. Mid Atlantic worse than the Bay of Biscay." The message included the sub's location, a standard practice for all German U-boat transmissions. Seehausen never worried that Allied forces would intercept the message and crack the code during his hour at the water's surface. If they found him, as he knew they might, it would be by some means other than cracking the code. Never by cracking the code. No one could crack the German Enigma code that quickly.


* * *


Minutes after U-66 surfaced somewhere near the African coast, a teletype clattered to life in a Washington, D.C., laboratory. The machine rattled away, sending the lab's operators into a frenzy. One grabbed the teletype's paper output and frantically keyed its message onto punched paper tape. Another fed the tape into a 7-foot-high, 5,000-pound calculating machine. Inside the machine, primitive logic circuits examined U-66's message. Outside, the lab's codebreakers anxiously awaited its response.

    Seehausen could never have imagined the scenario taking place halfway around the world. To think that someone was intercepting his message, then sending it across the Atlantic, where a 5,000-pound machine was stripping away its encryption codes would have been beyond the bounds of the most dedicated science fiction fans.

    For that matter the activity in the Washington, D.C., laboratory was beyond the imaginative scope of almost every U.S. government official. Other than President Roosevelt, few knew of the effort, mundanely titled Communications Supplementary Activity—Washington (CSAW). The decryption activity was cloaked by such secrecy that its highest ranking officials required Ultra Secret clearance—a security level even higher than that of the Manhattan Project.

    Roughly a thousand codebreakers worked at the navy's Nebraska Avenue facility—a tidy, red brick, former girl's school located in a quiet section of the city. These codebreakers were about as diverse and unconventional as any task force ever marshalled by the U.S. military. They had backgrounds in mathematics, physics, engineering, astronomy, and just about any discipline requiring intuitive pattern recognition. Some were chess experts, bridge champions, and musicians. Many had Ph.D's; a few were world-renowned scientists.

    When the war began, they had decrypted messages like those of U-66 without the benefit of machines. To do it, they had quietly labored over volumes of coded messages, searching for patterns that departed from pure randomness. When they had stumbled upon a pattern, they had conferred, discussed, debated, bickered, and fought among themselves until groups of them had finally arrived at a consensus. Sometimes it had taken as long as six hundred hours.

    As the war progressed, they developed machines to do the job. Following the lead of British scientists, a naval group in Dayton, Ohio, struggled to construct the machines, which they called Bombes. At first the Bombes were like 1930s adding machines, which used little electrical relays that clicked and clacked as their wheels spun furiously. By the end of 1943 the Bombes were far faster and more complex than electromechanical adding machines. By now they incorporated advanced circuits with more than fifteen hundred vacuum tubes.

    When technicians entered a coded message into its circuits, a Bombe could buzz through a decryption in about the same time as it took a thousand cryptanalytic clerks. It was uncanny. Somewhere in the Atlantic a Nazi technician would tap the keys of the Enigma machine and scramble a message in such a way that a codebreaker would have to try millions of permutations to crack it. And yet the machines could, in some cases, blaze through that code in a few minutes.

    Now the Bombes were cracking U-66's coded message—and it was about time. Since early in the war U-66 had done more than its share of damage. American intelligence blamed it for sinking the Allan Jackson, a 435-foot oil tanker owned by Standard Oil of New Jersey. They'd also blamed U-66 for sinking the Lady Hawkins, an ocean liner with 212 passengers on board, mostly civilians including women and children. Many sinkings were ugly: Victims swam through thick black smoke and layers of floating fuel, often burning to death alter the fuel was ignited by signal flares.

    But the tables were turning. The cryptologists at the Nebraska Avenue lab had cracked the code of U-66's message: "Refueling impossible under constant stalking. Mid Atlantic worse than the Bay of Biscay." Then came the most important information: "17 degrees, 17 minutes North; 32 degrees, 29 minutes West." Through a series of channels, the cryptologists relayed their information to the destroyer USS Buckley, which steamed through the mid Atlantic toward Seehausen's U-boat.

    Seehausen suspected that it was only a matter of time before Allied carriers and destroyers found him. They had been hounding him since April 29, and it was nearly midnight on May 5. Now he could see the USS Buckley about twenty-five hundred yards away. It was far too late to dive—an emergency dive could take as long as twenty minutes. He would have to face the Buckley, and he knew he had no chance of surviving.

    Seehausen would never know the truth about his sub's sinking. He would never hear about the red brick building or the cracking of the Enigma code. And he would never suspect that his sub's real nemesis was the ancestor of a machine that would one day be called the digital computer.


* * *


During the last of his four years at the navy's Nebraska Avenue facility, Lieutenant Commander William C. Norris started thinking about other uses for the codebreaking machines. Surely, he thought, there must be business applications for machines as fast as these.

    Bill Norris knew that the war would end soon and wondered about his options after he left the service. Unlike some of the other navy men, Norris had options. If he wanted, he could return to his family's farm in southern Nebraska, or he could go back to the Westinghouse Corporation in Chicago, where he had worked before the war selling X-ray equipment. A more staid personality might have done just that. After all, most of the country dreamed of little more than settling back into their prewar lives. But Norris wanted more, and he prided himself on his willingness to take risks to get it. A genuine, callous-palmed, Dust Bowl farm boy, he had traded his overalls for a slide rule thirteen years earlier, and at age thirty-five he wasn't anxious to go backward.

    At the red brick school Norris methodically worked his way up in rank, despite being surrounded by some of the country's best scientists. Unlike many of the other codebreakers, he didn't hail from a posh eastern college or have a distinguished track record of scientific achievement, but he was a quick study who was forceful and direct, almost to the point of bluntness. With his wide face and high cheekbones, he looked a little like the tough-talking character actor Sheldon Leonard. Though he was an average-sized man, he had an air of intimidation about him. When the occasion called for it, Norris could, as the saying went, curse like a sailor.

    Prior to joining the codebreakers, his crowning achievement had been in cattle farming. He'd grown up on a grassy spread of about a thousand acres along the Republican River in southern Nebraska. His life was classic midwestern Americana: small towns, rolling pasture lands, even a one-room schoolhouse.

    He had been a bright student, but because he'd attended a school with only seven or eight other children in the tiny town of Inavale, Nebraska, it was difficult to know just how bright. Life on the farm had made him practical, an improviser. He had a strong mechanical aptitude and a passion for radio technology. His bedroom was strewn with vacuum tubes and copper wire and he was a ham radio aficionado. Alter he finished high school, Norris went on to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln to study electrical engineering.

    Decades later, after Norris had achieved overwhelming success, the stories of his early years on his family's cattle farm would still be recognized as his defining moments. He returned home from the University of Nebraska in 1932, an electrical engineering degree in hand, and was hit with three crushing blows at once: His father had passed away a month earlier; the country was mired in the depths of the Great Depression; and the Midwest was wracked by the worst drought in the nation's history. The soil was so thin that it was being whisked away by the wind, and people in neighboring states were afraid to hang out laundry for fear it would be coated with brown dust while it dried.

    Cattle owners, too, were besieged by difficulties. Without crops, they had no feed for cattle. The corn on the Norris farm—which had always been used to feed the animals—was coming up in pathetic little stalks that rose about knee high and then wilted. Most of the other cattle farmers faced the same problems. Livestock buyers, recognizing the farmers' plight, were taking advantage of the situation by doling out painfully low prices for cattle.

    Norris refused to sell at distressed prices. The twenty-two-year-old college graduate consulted his mother and decided to feed the cattle Russian thistles. About eight inches long, soft, and green, the Russian thistles were young versions of tumbleweed—the kind that always seem to be blowing down the dusty street of some Western movie set. But Russian thistles weren't regarded as cattle food, and most farmers believed they would kill the cattle or, at the very least, lead to the birth of deformed calves.

    When Norris announced his plan to the neighbors, they as much as said he was crazy, but he ignored them. When they refused to help him stack the Russian thistle "crop" that covered his land, Norris hired vagrants at the nearby Red Cloud, Nebraska, railroad station to do it. And the cattle lived—for not one, but for two more winters—before he sold them at higher prices.

    Norris liked to repeat the story because he believed that it demonstrated his willingness to take risks. More than that, though, it showed that he was profoundly confident and had good instincts. What may have looked like big risks to others weren't risks at all in Norris's mind.

    Having been educated as an engineer, however, Norris wanted to try, his hand in the technical world. Alter two years on the farm, he interviewed for engineering jobs. Westinghouse offered him two positions: part-time engineer for $80 a month or full-time salesman for twice that much. Having survived the Great Depression, he opted for the logical choice and soon began working out of a Chicago sales office, traveling to accounts in various parts of Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska, selling medical and industrial X-ray equipment.

    Despite success in sales, his heart was still in engineering. When the war broke out, Norris jumped at a chance to break into a hardcore technical position. He took a job as a civil servant with the Bureau of Ordnance, where he hunched over a drafting board in a bullpen with about a hundred other engineers who worked on fire control for antiaircraft guns. Eventually he signed on with the Naval Reserve, ending up at the red brick school in Washington, D.C.

    At the Nebraska Avenue analytical center Norris was in his element. Though he wasn't in an intellectual league with the scientific theoreticians, he was technically proficient, and his managerial style was well suited for the navy: smart, gruff, and practical. While working at the red brick school, he was promoted to lieutenant commander.

    At CSAW (pronounced "Seesaw" by the codebreakers) Norris made more technical contributions than at any other stage of his career. At one point he discovered a method for identifying the source of German radio messages: Transmissions from each individual U-boat, he said, had their own set of peculiar characteristics. If he was right—and if they could identify the U-boat that was sending the message—they would crack the codes far faster. Scientists, however, questioned Norris's unproven theories and balked at the risks involved in using them. The characteristics, they said, were peculiarities of the ionosphere—the weather—not the U-boat. When they questioned his idea, Norris simply bypassed them and put the technique into effect. If he was wrong, he said, they could call him on the carpet. He wasn't wrong.

    Three years later when Norris again pursued a risky course, he would change the face of technology. But at that time, the idea he pursued seemed downright absurd.


* * *


No one was sure who first raised the concept of commercial applications for the codebreaking machines. But Norris occasionally found himself sitting around one of the research labs at the Nebraska Avenue building, idly brainstorming with some of the other technical people. During those sessions, they often wondered aloud about other uses for their machines. In the beginning it had seemed like a joke. He and Commander Howard Engstrom, a former Yale University mathematics professor who headed the research operation, lobbed ideas at each other and at some of the other men in the lab. What about flight reservations? Air traffic control? Guided missiles? Flight simulators? The old Link Trainer, a flight simulator for military pilots, was stiff, slow, and unrealistic. Digital electronics, they reasoned, could make the Link Trainer smoother, faster, and more flexible.

    But all of them knew that the new technology needed more development. Sure, they could replace the electromechanical relays in the Link Trainers with digital circuitry, but the cost of the system would skyrocket. Same for air traffic control and flight reservations. Even though digital technology offered the potential for scorching speed, it wasn't yet economically viable.

    Still, their pipedream grew. It started to appear so real that they stopped thinking of it as a joke. One evening during their ramblings Engstrom mused about the looming end to the war, "I, for one, don't want to go back to Yale, so I'd like to think in terms of something else."

    Norris, Engstrom, and the others briefly considered continuing their work in a government lab after the war, but they were unanimous in their disapproval of that prospect. Next they discussed setting up a private company and working for the navy on a contract basis. A good idea, they all agreed, but it still wasn't enough. Cost-plus-fixed-fee government work was hardly a road to riches; in fact, it was barely a living. Someone proposed that they find companies to sponsor or invest in their start-up. Though their technology wasn't yet ready for industry, it could be with enough capital for development. Their game plan evolved, eventually calling for Norris, Engstrom, and the others to own half of the proposed company, while outside investors owned the other half.

    In an extraordinary display of entrepreneurial wisdom, high-ranking navy officials drummed up support for the idea. The navy's rationale was simple self-preservation. The war's end was looming and the Cold War was on the horizon. Cryptanalytic work would be as crucial as ever, even after the war, yet navy officials would be unable to order their codebreakers to remain at the Nebraska Avenue facility. Most of the codebreakers had already dismissed the idea of continuing their effort in civil service positions, so the navy had little choice: Either keep the existing group together or start again from scratch.

    Convincing the captains of industry to buy into their proposal, however, was another matter. In their own minds they could see how the technology might give a boost to, say, an airline company. A reservationist might talk to a business executive who wanted to fly from Chicago to Omaha. By punching a few keys, the reservationist could send the electrons zipping through bundles of spaghetti wiring, jumping across vacuum tubes, speeding through the logic circuits and electronic memory, where the information on the Chicago-Omaha flight would be stored as little magnetic bits of information. American Airlines at the time used "card boys," who dashed around the reservations office with little three-by-fives on which were scribbled the number of available seats for a flight. Given the state of the art, the need for electronic machines seemed obvious.

    Still, it was a hard sell. Norris and Engstrom polished their shoes and donned their aristocratic-looking white naval officer uniforms with their shiny gold buttons. Through their navy contacts, they managed to get audiences with presidents of companies such as American Airlines and Western Union. But their pitch—replete with references to electrons, logic circuits, and bits of magnetic information—sounded like voodoo to the baffled company executives. The executives sat politely and listened and their ears perked up every now and then at the thought of the potential corporate efficiency, but their answers were always the same.

    In the end it was simply too unrealistic. When it came to discussing reliability or past experience, Norris and Engstrom were handcuffed. They couldn't talk about past experience: All that information was classified and it was a felony to discuss it. They couldn't say how they'd used the machines, or for how long, or what their reliability record was. One of the few things they could say was that the machines existed.

    Worse, Norris or Engstrom could offer no business savvy. They were a mathematician and an engineer proposing an entry into a foreign domain, and the time simply wasn't right for taking on such a program. As the war drew to a close, most companies were reorganizing and rethinking their business plans. One after another the executives listened, then politely declined. It was a fine idea, an idea with great potential, they said. But the war had just ended, their company was reorganizing, funding was difficult to come by, the risk was too great.

    The navy, however, wouldn't let Norris and Engstrom quit. Determined to keep their cryptological programs afloat, naval officials arranged for the two to visit with James V. Forrestal, secretary of the navy and former Wall Street financier. Forrestal helped set up interviews with still more firms, including New York investment banker Kuhn Loeb & Co. But even there they met with resistance. Executives at Kuhn Loeb flatly concluded that there was no commercial future for their ... electronic calculators.


* * *


Norris had never heard of Northwestern Aeronautical Corporation. Northwestern, formed in conjunction with Twin Cities-based Northwest Airlines, made wooden gliders for the war effort. Allied forces used the unpowered gliders at the Normandy D-day invasion and at other battles to silently carry troops into enemy territory. The company assembled fifteen gliders a day in a huge plant on Minnehaha Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota.

    Nor had Norris heard of John E. Parker, owner of Northwestern Aeronautical. Parker was a Naval Academy graduate, a social hobnobber, and an entrepreneur. A jovial, round-faced man with an amazing recall for names and faces, he was universally liked. Parker and his wife lived in Washington, D.C., about three months a year and spent the other nine months at the Commodore Hotel in St. Paul, a ritzy little hotel with a rich, dark wood decor and big, luxurious rooms. Despite his apparent wealth, John Parker was facing a potential financial crisis. As sole owner of Northwestern Aeronautical and part-owner of the Toro Company, much of his capital was tied up. Northwestern Aeronautical had a dim future, because with the war's end there would be no imaginable need for wooden gliders.

    For Parker, the disintegration of Northwestern Aeronautical would be a giant loss. He liked to claim that Northwestern was the second- or third-largest contractor to the war effort, and now his company was about to collapse with a suddenness that few businessmen ever experience. Parker was desperately searching for a solution to his problem when a high-ranking navy official called him. Through channels, the official said, he had heard that the navy was looking for an investor. He knew little about the opportunity because the information was classified. Highly classified. He told Parker to go back to Washington and to talk to naval officials there.

    Parker did, and was stunned to find that the first naval official they wanted him to meet was Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, former commander of the Pacific Fleet. It was clear that the navy was pulling out all the stops in its effort to find an investor. Parker was escorted into Nimitz's office, where the admiral shook his hand and jabbed a finger in his chest. "I've looked into your background and there's a job that I'd like you to do," Nimitz told him, "and it may be more important in peacetime than it is in wartime." Nimitz then made a fleeting reference to a particular naval group, saying that it was important to keep the group together. And that was it.

    Being an Academy graduate, Parker had the proper respect for naval authority. "Aye, aye, sir," he said, though he had no idea what he was agreeing to. Later Parker was ushered into the assistant secretary of the navy's office and then into the office of the judge advocate, who gave him legal advice on the matter. By the time Parker finally met with Norris and Engstrom, he was only aware that the navy thought that this proposed venture was vitally important. Or at least he was aware that the navy was trotting out its biggest names in an effort to woo him.

    Norris and Engstrom made the same pitch to Parker that they'd already made to a dozen other potential investors. They told him that they'd been involved in highly classified work and would like to continue it on a private basis, but that they needed an investor to pick up half the tab for their new venture. They promised at least three years of service and laid out a few of the potential business applications for the technology.

    After they finished, Parker still knew almost nothing about the proposed venture. Nimitz hadn't given him a shred of information about it, and had said only that it was of great importance to the country. Norris and Engstrom had provided a little bit more, but even their information was sketchy. They apologetically explained that it would be a felony to reveal any more, and Parker accepted their explanation. By the end of the fourth meeting they still hadn't told Parker who his new customers would be.

    Parker had grown wealthy as an entrepreneur and was far shrewder than any of the navy men suspected. No, he didn't understand digital electronics or vacuum tubes, and he couldn't assess the technical capabilities of Norris and Engstrom. But he could read between the lines. He implicitly understood that the company's main customer would be the navy—that was plain enough—and he knew that the navy had already assessed the capabilities of Norris and Engstrom. If Norris and Engstrom had come up short in its estimation, he wouldn't be here. It was a roundabout way of evaluating the situation, but it was all he had. Parker liked to tell his friends that it was a little bit like taking on a symphony orchestra without knowing a note of music, but that didn't worry him.

    Besides, there was this issue of Northwestern Aeronautical. Parker had already declared the glider factory as war surplus and had liquidated his inventory. The company was clearly on the verge of collapse—that is, unless he could pull off a last-minute miracle. And this new venture certainly fell into the category of a last-minute miracle. If he could pull it off, he knew that the new company could potentially offer jobs for his current employees. Whatever machines the navy men planned to make, machinists and assemblers would be needed to build them.

    Parker considered everything: the fate of Northwestern, the loss of jobs for all the machinists at his plant, the risk of investing in a project he didn't understand. But one image kept coming back to him—Nimitz jabbing a finger in his chest and saying, "There's a job I'd like you to do." In 1945 most of the country still felt a sense of common purpose and patriotism, and an order from someone the stature of Admiral Nimitz was almost impossible to resist, especially for a Naval Academy man. So Parker sold his $300,000 stake in the Toro Company to fund the new venture.

    Then he called together Norris, Engstrom, and Captain Ralph Meader from the Naval Computing Machine Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio. They and their wives met for dinner—in grand Parker style—at the Metropolitan Club in Washington, D.C. The navy men agreed to sign a contract binding themselves to three years of service to the new company; Parker agreed to head a group that would purchase a hundred thousand shares of the company stock at ten cents each. Pooling their resources, the navy men bought the other hundred thousand shares, and the deal was complete. Parker then returned to the St. Paul glider factory and announced to a band of cheering machinists that their jobs had been saved.

    In January 1946 the group incorporated the new company, calling it Engineering Research Associates (ERA). The navy men immediately hired forty members of the "Seesaw" staff, and Parker arranged for the new company to share his cavernous glider factory with Northwestern Aeronautical. Sharing quarters with Northwestern was critical because ERA wasn't yet qualified to carry out a major government contract. Although most members of its staff had worked for the navy during the war, ERA didn't have a corporate track record. Northwestern Aeronautical, however, did have a track record. So by setting up shop in the glider factory, ERA could work on major contracts that had been officially awarded to Northwestern Aeronautical.

    As far as the navy brass was concerned, Parker had saved their codebreaking operation. The machinists in St. Paul also considered Parker a savior—his last-minute heroics were responsible for saving their jobs. Norris and Engstrom were the only ones with an inkling of the business potential that could emerge from the new enterprise, but even they had more personal concerns. Parker's cash influx was helping free Engstrom from a life as a Yale math professor, and Norris no longer faced a return to his job as an X-ray machine salesman with Westinghouse.

    Everyone was pleased. They had taken an obscure military technology and transformed it into a private enterprise. They wanted to congratulate themselves for their foresight and steadfast determination, but Norris and Engstrom knew that their victory was not born of their own resolve. The real reason for the formation of Engineering Research Associates was that the U.S. Navy wanted it that way, and had pushed the company into existence through the bony finger of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.

CONTENTS
Preface............................................................vii
Prologue: At the Crossroads..........................................1
One The Codebreakers.................................................7
Two The Incubator...................................................21
Three Seymour.......................................................41
Four Engineers' Paradise............................................73
Five The Hog Trough................................................103
Six The CRAY-1.....................................................127
Seven The Cray Way.................................................147
Eight The New Genius...............................................167
Nine Shakeout......................................................189
Notes..............................................................221
Acknowledgments....................................................225
Index..............................................................227

[an error occurred while processing this directive]


Copyright 2000-2002, Bloomberg L.P.
Terms of Use | Privacy Notice