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In his element
To describe Cray as a recluse is going too far but some might have seen him as such - but this is would simply be a misunderstanding of another's paradise! Even so Cray's behaviour must have seemed very odd to the non-techie CDC executives. They would drop in on Cray and be whisked off to the local diner where he would eat a hot dog and vanish as soon as possible back to the lab.
It was said that his method of working was to grab some chips and a soldering iron and put his latest idea together on a card table. I doubt it, but it might have looked like that! The clue to how Cray really worked is the fact that he used a whole pad of paper every day. The pad was covered by design ideas which was passed on to his team of technicians who produced finished electronics.
In 1963 the 6600 was finished and it was the most powerful computer ever built. It was priced at $7.5 million and they eventually sold over fifty. At first, however, there were problems. The 350,000 transistor machine needed debugging and this took time. The first machine was six months late and it still had bugs.
The Cray 6600
Cray went ahead with the design of the 7600 and the 8600 but CDC decided not to market the 8600 and so Cray became unhappy yet again.
CDC had become a power in the business computing field and they downgraded the work on supercomputers. This time Cray really did have to go it alone. He left CDC and formed Cray Research - dedicated to supercomputers. The leaving wasn't acrimonious, CDC contributed $500,000 to the startup and they promised not to build any more supercomputers.
The design Cray had in mind was revolutionary and would eventually make money - but at first it was a struggle. Cray Research was set up in 1972. By 1976 the money had run out and the Cray 1 still wasn't ready.
The solution to the problem was to go public but Cray Research was a company that didn't have a product and it did have a $2.5 million deficit. Amazingly Wall Street came up with the funding - $10 million almost immediately - the word about Seymour Cray must have leaked out.
Cray would work with his team for a few hours and then go home at around 4pm - but he would return at night to work alone at the late shift. An eccentric genius who surely must be worth a few dollars gamble.
Seymour Cray standing next to the core unit of the Cray 1 computer, circa 1974
Photograph courtesy of the Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
The first Cray-1 was delivered to Los Alamos Lab in March 1976 at a cost of $8.8 million. There were thought to be only eight potential customers for the Cray-1. By 1980 it had sold nine, thirteen more in 1981, and fifteen more in 1982. Not a mass market product but it made the company a great deal of cash which more than repaid the investment.