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NASA Shows Off Its Big Computer In 1986

Sometimes it is hard to remember just how far computers have come in the last three or four decades. An old NASA video (see below) has been restored with better sound and video recently that shows what passed for a giant computer in 1986. The Cray 2 runs at 250 MHz and had two gigabytes of memory (256 megabytes of 64-bit words).

Despite the breathless praise, history hasn’t been kind to the Cray 2. Based on ECL, it had 4 processors and –in theory — could reach 1,900 megaFLOPs/second (a FLOP is a floating point operation). However, practical problems made it difficult to get to that theoretical maximum.

Still, it was the fastest computer of its day and that amount of memory in 1986 was stunning. A 1987 Radio Shack catalog, for example, shows a Tandy 1000 SX that could run at over 7 MHz, had 384K of RAM, and not one but two floppy drives for only $1,199.00. Well, you’d need to pay extra for the monitor, but still. The year after that, $2,600 would get you the 4000 that ran at 16 Mhz with an 80386 onboard. For that price you got a full megabyte of memory. There were two empty slots for a hard drive and you’d still need to buy both a monitor and a display card! The Cray had 2,000 times that much memory and could probably get to it a lot faster, too. Of course, it also cost around $16 million. It is always dicey to compare speeds of different computers, but we read that the iPad 2 is about as fast as the Cray 2.

Of course, the sticker price was just the start. The 5,500 pound computer could burn up to 200 kilowatts of electricity and we have a feeling the special 3M liquid that cooled the thing wasn’t that cheap either. Apparently, some lasers use a similar fluid and we found some of that currently available for about $500 for a 1000 cc container.

Computer History has a nice scan of an old Cray sales brochure you might enjoy. We got a chuckle out of the page describing it as “compact” with 14 vertical columns taking up “only” 16 square feet of floor space. You had to have space for the 320 pluggable modules. For a sales brochure, it goes into a lot of detail with block diagrams and discussions about the actual architecture. The memory bandwidth, according to the brochure, is a cool 8 billion gigabytes per second. We also found it interesting that the system had motor generators to produce the 400 Hz power the system needed.

If you don’t have 16 square feet and the three-phase power service to operate one of these, we’ve seen a knock off Cray-1 that looks cool. Or you can disguise your PC, although if it isn’t water-cooled, that seems somehow inappropriate.

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