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Crave visits the Cray-1, a true museum piece

The megaflop-busting Cray-1 made computing history back in 1976. Crave's Nerdy New Mexico arrives in the atomic city of Los Alamos to meet up with with this supercomputing classic.

Cray-1 supercomputer
This Cray-1 is now part of a supercomputing exhibit in Los Alamos. Amanda Kooser/CNET

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. -- Many great masterpieces reside in museums. There's the "Mona Lisa" at the Louvre. "Nighthawks at the Diner" graces the wall at the Art Institute of Chicago. And the Cray-1 sits at the Bradbury Science Museum here in Los Alamos.

The first Cray-1 was installed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1976 at a cost of $8.8 million. It set a new world record speed of 160 million floating-point operations per second and boasted 8MB of main memory. According to the museum, it was the first computer to break the megaflop barrier.

MANIAC data register unit
MANIAC data register unit from 1952. Vacuum tubes! (Click to enlarge.) Amanda Kooser/CNET

By today's hardware standards, the Cray-1 is a great lumbering beast. The dramatic lighting shining on it at the Bradbury exhibit shows off its curves and hulking size. But by 1976 standards, it was a svelte creation whose circular shape kept the complex wiring compact.

To understand how revolutionary the Cray-1 was, we can look back to 1952. The Bradbury Museum's supercomputing exhibit includes a chunk of the MANIAC 1, the lab's first electronic, digital, programmable computer.

MANIAC 1 used 2,400 vacuum tubes and took up as much space as a small elephant. Fast-forward to 1976, and you can see why the Cray-1 was looked upon as a small, powerful computing flower.

Laying modern eyes on the Cray-1, I notice the thick bundles of wires inside, like electronic spaghetti. Benches radiating from the bottom hide the power supplies and look terribly inviting after a long day of tromping around Los Alamos. Dare I say, the Cray-1 is a retro beauty, with all its chunkiness and 1970s-style gratings.

Let's give a cheer to the supercomputers that preceded our little desktops and smartphones of today. Our current computers may not be as visually impressive as the Cray-1, but at least we don't have to save up $8.8 million to break the megaflop barrier.

Cray-1 circuit board
A close-up look at a Cray-1 circuit board. Amanda Kooser/CNET