CBI-LANL History Project
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CBI-Los Alamos HPC History Project

We are pleased to announce the start of a multi-year research collaboration between the Charles Babbage Institute and the high-performance computing division of Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL). The collaboration is now formalized through a subcontract between the University of Minnesota and LANL.  The first phase of this project commenced in March and covers the next 18 months of collaborative research.  Already this spring Nicholas Lewis, a second-year Ph.D. student in the HSTM program, has been compiling publicly accessible materials on the history of high-performance computing (HPC) at Los Alamos.  He will be supported by LANL during the academic year, taking classes and working here in Minneapolis, with an internship this summer at Los Alamos itself.


Anyone who has followed the history of high-performance computing needs no introduction to Los Alamos.  It was the notably famous research site for the wartime Manhattan Project, founded as Project Y in 1943 in a remote part of New Mexico, and has been a notable spur to American computing ever since.  Its design calculations for the plutonium-based atomic bomb taxed the nation’s most powerful computers during the war.  The ENIAC computer in Philadelphia was already at work on calculations for Los Alamos researchers two months prior to its public announcement in February 1946.  Notable figures in physics and computing directly associated with the work of Los Alamos include John von Neumann, Richard Feynman, Nicholas Metropolis, Stanislaw Ulam, and many others.  Beginning with the MANIAC in 1952, Los Alamos installed such notable high-performance computers as the IBM Stretch (1961), at least four Control Data 6600s (1966-68), the iconic Cray-1 (1976) and other Cray machines, a cluster of high-performance parallel computers with the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative in the 1990s, and the IBM Roadrunner (2008), the first computer to break the “petaflop” mark of one quadrillion floating point operations per second.


The celebration of the seventieth anniversary of Los Alamos in 2013 prompted the high-performance computing division to inquire more deeply into its storied history.  In 2013 Los Alamos created a timeline application initially focusing on computer hardware but it quickly realized that a larger historical research effort was necessary to document, understand, and disseminate its notable achievements in software, computer security, database management, and other areas.


Computer operator inspects ‘MANIAC’ (Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator, and Computer), built at Los Alamos in 1952 and in operation through 1958. Photo courtesy of LANL.


For this collaborative research project, we plan to make a thorough survey of archival materials at LANL, to conduct a set of oral history interviews, and develop a research plan to document the history of HPC at LANL.  Scholarly publications in the open literature will augment existing sources such as Nicholas Metropolis, et al., A History of Computing in the Twentieth Century: A Collection of Papers (New York: Academic Press, 1980) and Donald MacKenzie’s “The Influence of the Los Alamos and Livermore National Laboratories on the Development of Supercomputing” in IEEE Annals of the History of Computing (April-June 1991).

Thomas J. Misa


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