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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Ultimate Geek Fu

"A Piece of History"

In 1984, Universal, Lorimar, Warner Films, and Digital Productions made history by releasing The Last Starfighter, the first movie ever to make extensive use of CGI instead of mechanical props and models for its special effects. The movie was not entirely successful; the box office returns were disappointing, the Atari arcade game tie-ins flopped, and today it remains more of a "cult classic" than a revered milestone in cinematic history; but in its day, it was a film that really redefined the state of the art. In fact, its groundbreaking CGI effects were so bleeding edge state of the art that there was only one computer in the world that could be used to create them: the Cray X-MP.

Specifically, Cray X-MP Serial Number 108, which was installed at Digital Productions on November 14, 1983*, and after The Last Starfighter used to render CGI footage for 2010, Labyrinth, Dune, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and a series of award-winning TV commercials, among other things.
[* Ironically, at almost exactly the same time as #108 was being shipped from Chippewa Falls to Hollywood, some punk kid from another small town in Wisconsin about sixty miles away from CF had just had his first sci-fi story published, in which he advanced the idea that you could get the effect of a supercomputer by chaining hundreds of personal computers together, if you could just find a good way to let them share data. In time render farms, composed of exactly such clusters of commodity computers, completely took over the CGI business, and Cray ceased to be a player in that market. But that is another story.]
#108 went on to have a long and checkered history, as Digital Productions was assimilated in a hostile takeover by a Canadian company that subsequently went bankrupt and the machine changed hands and bounced around the North American continent. Eventually it returned home to Chippewa Falls, though, where it remained in service as a test-bed and backup system until the last working X-MP in the field (a meteorology system owned by the government of India) was decommissioned in the summer of 2001. At that time #108 was finally shut down for good, and then disassembled and reduced to a heap of its component parts.

Like this one:

This is a 3ZD memory data out module from #108. When it was new it cost $10,000. It weighs a little over four pounds, mostly because of the two massive copper heat sinks that were required for heat dissipation. Cooling has always been a critical problem for supercomputers. That's what finally killed the met system in India; a cooling system failure.

How about you? What's the coolest Geek Artifact you own?

Let the bragging begin.
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