Seymour Cray, Jr. just wanted to make the world’s best supercomputer.
So the idea to hire noted photographer Lee Friedlander to capture Cray Research at its peak in 1986 came from CEO John Rollwagen, according to Skip August, who had began working for the company nearly 10 years earlier.
August said Rollwagen was looking for an annual present to give to employees. So he hired Friedlander to take photos that would turn into an 87 page book to be given as gifts to workers.
“These books are worth a few hundred dollars now,” August said.
And the black-and-white photos Friedlander took of the company and of Chippewa Falls are now part of a exhibit at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, near Palo Alto, Calif. The exhibit began March 27 and runs through June 16.
People are also reading…
To get a flavor of Friedlander’s work, eight of the photos he took while in Chippewa Falls are on the walls of the Chippewa Falls Museum of Industry and Technology, 21 E. Grand Ave. None of those photos, including one with Seymour Cray himself, are in the exhibit or in the book given to employees.
August is on the board of directors of the Chippewa Falls museum.
“I started out as a mechanical engineer (at Cray Research),” he said. He would eventually rise to being a director of engineering.
He stayed with Cray Research until its merger with SGI in 1996, which brought that company to Chippewa Falls. August left SGI in 2003.
He loved working at Cray Research. “It was a team effort,” he said.
And it 1986, Cray Research stood alone in its field in its 15th year. Its Cray 1 machine revolutionized the business, and the Cray 2 and the XMP were also successes. Work was progressing on the next generation of supercomputers, the Cray YMP.
“Things were just super. We were at the top of the world. Those were the glory days,” August said.
“The rest of the world wasn’t really at the level we were at,” he said of Cray. “They didn’t have what we had.”
Putting together one of Cray’s machines was a lot of work. August said each Cray 1 and XMP had 130 miles of twisted wire that was six inches thick.
The wire length was kept short. The shorter the wire, the faster the computation could be made.
“That’s why the machine is round. It made everything closer,” August said.
To do the wiring, the company needed workers with great dexterity and who had experience weaving. A number of women were hired to do the tough work, and Friedlander captured them on many of the memorable shots of the exhibits.
“He went from department to department, taking different pictures,” August said.
With that, Friedlander left and took his photos with him. August said Cray workers forgot about Friedlander until the book came out the next year, in 1987.
And when the book came out, Cray Research workers were disappointed.
“People were not impressed at the time, because it looked bleak,” August said. Chippewa Falls has beautiful sights, but some felt Friedlander’s photos didn’t reflect that.
“He also poked around the town, shooting traffic signs in mostly empty streets, documenting a cluster of oil-storage tanks near a cemetery (in Lake Hallie) and taking a few shots of train tracks and the desolation they pass through,” noted a review of the exhibit by www.kqed.org.
Friedlander’s photos made bleak scenes even bleaker, the review said, but that changed when he took photos inside Cray Research.
Cray Research’s legacy can continue to be seen throughout Chippewa Falls.
There’s SGI, of course, which makes both high-end computers and storage systems. A separate company, Cray, Inc., bears Cray’s name and continues to manufacture some of the best supercomputers in the world. Computer circuit board maker TTM Technologies, Inc., is one of the area’s largest employers.
And Cray Research’s work lives on in Friedlander’s photos.
Working there was an experience August cherishes, a place where workers and their ideas made a big difference in the lives of people around the globe.
“Cray was just a neat place to work,” he said. “You got a chance to do things. You got a chance to be responsible.”