Seymour and Sidney (Cray and Fernbach)

Pioneers who changed the face of information technology

It has been said that success has a thousand parents while failure is an orphan. No wonder, then, that the rise of the computer has been associated with the names of so many pioneers. But for all of the household names, there are two who remain relatively obscure to the general public, who have arguably done more than any others.  Together they spurred the development of information technology as no others.


It is hard to imagine two partners less alike than Sid Fernbach and Seymour Cray. Fernbach was a brash Jewish guy from Philadelphia who became a physicist during the early days of Atomic energy and ultimately the Director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Computation Division. Cray was a taciturn mid-westerner who preferred a rural environment.  He came to prominence as the foremost computer engineer of the era, and helped found several companies that made some of the most capable supercomputers of their time. Together as customer and provider, the two men spurred each other on to accelerate the development of high-end systems and, by extension, the capabilities of all computing devices.

Legends have grown up around both of these iconic figures, most of them substantially true. As Livermore’s Head of Computation, Fernbach was fiercely determined to give its scientists a computing environment that was second to none. He was tireless, if somewhat duplicitous in his methods. At the height of the Cold War when the nuclear testing program was in its full fury, he argued before his patrons in Washington that he needed more and more computing power to analyze the test results. However, during the testing moratoriums, he would argue to the same people even more sincerely that he needed enhanced computing power to simulate the behaviors that could no longer be tested. And he constantly goaded industry to meet the needs of his programs, making business cases, patriotic arguments and whatever else might work.

Fernbach’s entreaties were music to Cray’s ears. First at Univac then at Control Data Corporation and later at two companies bearing his own name, Cray always seemed to produce the most technologically, if not commercially, successful machines. He defied conventional wisdom with regard to system architecture, components technology and design practice and he always seemed to win.

When IBM and other leading companies paid much attention to error-correcting codes, he was quoted as saying “parity is for the farmers.” When almost all of the industry was going from transistors to integrated circuits, he stayed with discrete components for another generation or two, preferring to attain speed by carefully selecting the fastest-switching junctions. And at a time when computer design companies were becoming massive enterprises, his style was to work as a lone engineer surrounded by a few dozen technicians in a secluded setting.


In this way, Cray produced generations of supercomputers to meet the demands of customers like Fernbach. Livermore became a depository of early serial numbers (usually number one) of the fastest systems of their times (usually Cray’s). Both passed away in the 1990s, Fernbach from kidney disease and Cray in a tragic highway accident. But their influence long outlived them and will continue to do so.

The IEEE Computer Society has enshrined both of these men in its annual awards program. The Seymour Cray Award “recognizes innovative contributions to high performance computing systems that best exemplify the creative spirit of Seymour Cray.” The Sidney Fernbach Award recognizes “outstanding contributions in the application of high performance computers using innovative approaches.” Through these two annual awards, it can be argued that these two men continue to stimulate the advance of computing technology, just as they had throughout their careers.