While researching Minnesota inventions, I learned that some time around 1966 (when I went off to college) all the computing power in the world was about equal to that of one slightly dated iPhone 4.
The starting point for this exploration was my discovery of the fact that the supercomputer was invented here in the Twin Cities. Specifically, Minneapolis-based Control Data Corp.’s CDC-6600, introduced in 1964, had about 10 times the computing power of any other machine then running.
Such supercomputers performed scientific calculations many times faster than the ordinary (mainframe) computers of the day, such as those sold by IBM. Starting in the 1970s, so-called minicomputers began challenging mainframes for use in business, until they were ousted in their turn by the ever-cheaper, ever-more-powerful consumer-grade personal computers. Today’s supercomputers are made up of thousands or millions of standard PC chips, knit together by some variant of the Linux operating system.
Minnesota’s contributions to the world extend far beyond computers, of course. One compendium of such inventions lists, among other innovations:
- Wet/dry sandpaper, masking tape, and Scotch tape;
- Wheaties cereal;
- The game Twister;
- The bundt pan;
- The pacemaker;
- Spam (the one purporting to be a food);
- The Nerf ball; and
- Microwave popcorn, introduced in 1984.
Here is a MinnPost review that adds the following inventions, among others, to Minnesota’s column:
- The black box flight data recorder;
- Grocery bags with handles (1921);
- The pop-up toaster;
- In-line skates;
- Tonka trucks;
- The snow blower (from Toro in 1951);
- The snowmobile (1956); and
- The retractable seat belt (patented 1963).
But it was the supercomputer connection to the Twin Cities that caught my interest most powerfully — I have spent my entire career working with computers in one form or another.
A Look Back
The flops notation refers to floating-point operations per second, a measure of a computer’s power in tackling scientific or engineering problems. Kflops is one thousand floating-point operations per second; Mflops one million; Gflops one billion; and Tflops one trillion. The ratings given above, taken from a variety of sources, represent theoretical or peak performance for each device; real-world performance is always less. The final two entries are the world’s fastest supercomputers as of June 2015 and June 2016. The latter has 10,649,600 computing cores.
The first computer I interacted with, in my sophomore year of college, was a Univac 1108. One submitted a job in the form of a deck of punched cards and got output from a line printer, probably hours later. Until undertaking this research I wasn’t aware that the 1108 was quite a hot machine in its day, running something like 4 times as fast as the first supercomputer, the CDC-6600 mentioned above.
Univac too has a distant tie-in to the Twin Cities. In the complex history of the name Univac, the brand has migrated from the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in the 1940s to Remington Rand Corporation, to Sperry Corporation, to Sperry Rand Corporation, and finally to Unisys today. While Remington Rand owned Univac in the early 1950s, it also bought Engineering Research Associates, or ERA, in St. Paul. In later corporate maneuverings, the founders of ERA left in 1957 to found Control Data Corp. (CDC) in Minneapolis.
My first job out of college was as a technical writer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. At the time in 1971 LLNL had probably the largest collection of computing power under one roof anywhere in the world. When I arrived, the computing center ran four CDC-6600s and two CDC-7600s, as well as many lesser machines. The Lab acquired its first Cray-1 after I had left in 1976.
In that year I went to work for Digital Equipment Corporation in Massachusetts. My first assignment was writing operating-system documentation for DEC’s new “super-mini” computer, the VAX-11/780. This machine was about the equal of the mainframes from a decade or two previous, at a small fraction of the cost. A VAX installation might cost $200,000, vs. $2M-$4M for the earlier mainframes.
The world of computers and the Internet has grown by orders of magnitude in many dimensions, not just in processor speed. Storage space, bandwidth, video quality, component density, and value per dollar have all doubled and redoubled, year after year, roughly keeping pace with the growth in raw CPU power.
Here is one other example spanning my career from the early 1970s at Livermore to the present.
LLNL’s computing power all communicated over a network — named the Octopus — so that all of the supecomputers and other computing facilities were available to users in offices over the Lab’s square mile of territory. This description sounds mundane today, but the LLNL network was perhaps the first of its kind at that scale.
One resource that users could reach over the Octopus network was a trillion bits of archival data storage online: the IBM Photodigital Store, called by all at the Lab the Photostore. This room-sized device wrote data via electron beams on high-density, photo-sensitive film, ran a develop-fix-wash-dry cycle on it, and stored it in capsules that sped around a maze of pneumatic tubes. When the Photostore was first acquired, I was told, engineers believed it would never be filled: that a trillion bits would meet the Lab’s archival storage needs for all time. By the time I arrived in 1971, the terabit was being filled (with old bits being moved to near-line availability) about every 18 months, and dropping.