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Supercomputer Inventor Cray Critically Injured in Auto Accident

September 24, 1996|JULIE PITTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Legendary computer designer Seymour Cray, the father of the supercomputer and long one of the world's most daring and inventive technologists, clung to life Monday at a Colorado Springs, Colo., hospital after a traffic accident left him with a broken neck and massive head injuries.

Kate Brewster, a spokeswoman for Penrose Hospital, said Cray, 70, was in critical and unstable condition after surgery was performed Sunday to relieve pressure on his brain caused by swelling.

Brewster would give no prognosis for Cray's recovery.

According to the Colorado State Patrol, Cray's Jeep Cherokee was struck when the driver of a Chevrolet Camaro attempted to pass him and hit another car. That vehicle then slammed into Cray's, which caused it to roll over three times. Cray, who was alone, was the only driver injured in the accident.

The driver of the Camaro, Colorado Springs resident Daniel Rarick, 33, was cited for careless driving causing serious bodily injury.

Friends say that before the accident, Cray had been in a particularly upbeat mood, bubbling with ideas for another new computer. His latest venture, SRC Computer Inc., which took its name from Cray's initials, was started during the summer, a little more than a year after his third company, Cray Computer Corp., filed for bankruptcy.

As always, Cray's goal was to build the world's fastest computer, something he has accomplished numerous times in the past four decades. Cray invented the first supercomputer after co-founding Control Data Corp. in the mid-1950s, and later went on to perfect his ideas at Cray Research Inc., a company he started in 1976 and which was recently sold to Silicon Graphics Inc.

Supercomputers are the Ferraris of information processing, used by research scientists to analyze the weather, by oil companies to examine the Earth and by weapons designers to develop everything from nuclear missiles to combat simulations. During the Cold War, the Defense Department, which funded much supercomputer development, considered Cray a crucial national security asset.

In the early 1980s, Cray began working on his most daring computer, which used computer circuits made from a super-fast but unreliable material called gallium arsenide. Cray Research's board decided the design was too risky, so he set off on his own with a $100-million investment from his former company.

But Cray's newest computer wound up being extraordinarily expensive even by supercomputer standards. At the same time, the end of the Cold War made the government less willing to spend unlimited sums on the latest and greatest, and commercial customers were turning away traditional supercomputers altogether in favor of cheaper technologies built from standardized parts.

With no money coming in and the $100 million long gone, Cray was forced to close the doors of Cray Computer.

But Cray was undeterred by his failure. He came back this summer with SRC Computer Inc., and friends say his inventive mind was again percolating with new ideas.

Gordon Bell, the inventor of the minicomputer and a storied computer designer in his own right, said he discussed Cray's new computer with him at a recent computer conference. "I didn't get to see his latest machine," a wistful Bell said.

"I am really hoping for one more design," he said. "Seymour was not afraid to go out on a limb and attempt things that more conservative engineers like myself would never have attempted."

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