copyright 1994 Tamiko Thiel

Chapter I: The first of a new generation

Despite our ambitious goals for the appearance of the machine, Thinking Machines' concern was based on a pragmatic need: to communicate to people that this was the first of a new generation of computers, unlike any machine they had seen before.

Today, parallel processing is acknowledged as the leading edge of computer technology. In the mid-80s, however, when the first Connection Machine was introduced, it was a very radical design. At that time, all computers employed a single main processor that performed every calculation sequentially, one step after the other. Even supercomputers used this "sequential" processing, achieving faster speeds of computation largely by pushing electronic packaging technology to the extreme limits. Rumor had it that one company even hired midgets to do the wiring, as the cables formed such a dense snarl that people of average size could not service the machine.

What was true, in any case, was that supercomputers had reached nature's ultimate barrier: the speed of light, the absolute limit on the speed of signal transmission in wires. Theoretically, parallel machines could circumvent this barrier, gaining increased speed by having multiple processors execute calculations in parallel, but they seemed impossible to program and impossible to build. As a result they were either the object of scientific research or the target of scepticism and derision.

For Danny Hillis, a student working on problems in human cognition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the late '70s, existing sequential supercomputers were simply inadequate for the problems that interested him. Even the fastest supercomputers were unable to recognize human faces, use language at the level of a 5-year-old child, or perform other tasks that humans, equipped with brains much slower than any supercomputer, could solve with ease. He became convinced that it was necessary to design a parallel computer with a structure closer to that of a human brain.

In order to build the first of these new machines, Hillis helped found Thinking Machines Corporation in 1983, which introduced the CM-1 in 1986 and the higher performance version, the CM-2, in 1987. (Since the CM-2 quickly replaced the CM-1, being a faster version of the same computer architecture, as well as using the same external package, I will speak only of the CM-2 from now on.) These machines had 65,536 simple 1-bit processors that could simultaneously perform the same calculation, each on its own separate data set. For problems involving the separate but interrelated actions of many similar objects or units, such as movement of atoms, fluid flow, information retrieval, or computer graphics, this "data-parallel" structure brought tremendous increases in speed while also being easy to program. Many problems that seemed impossibly complex when analyzed with sequential logic fit naturally into a parallel data structure. (3)

This type of massively parallel architecture had been tried before, but what enabled the CM-2 to succeed where other designs had failed was an extremely flexible and fast communications network between the processors. Using the model of the human brain, Hillis's design placed importance not so much on the processors themselves, but rather on the nature and mutability of the connections between them, hence the name "Connection Machine."

Due to the highly controversial nature of the machine, Thinking Machines' top management, especially Danny Hillis and Sheryl Handler, the company's president, put a high priority on a package that would not only convince viewers of the machine's uniqueness, but would also explain the nature of its architecture, so that the appearance of the machine itself would communicate its function.

Challenged by a technically difficult packaging problem and the desire to find a unique form for the machine, Thinking Machines wanted to involve an industrial designer from the outset. Knowing that my background included industrial design as well as mechanical engineering, Danny Hillis asked me to oversee both the technical and esthetic aspects of the packaging design for the CM-2. The two functions have been split apart in subsequent design projects, but Thinking Machines maintains the policy of involving industrial designers at an early stage in the development of each new machine, so that the form of the machine can be influenced by esthetic, as well as by technical, considerations.

Far from deriding the esthetic aspects as unimportant, Dick Clayton, head of engineering at Thinking Machines, and Ted Bilodeau, the consulting mechanical engineer for the CM-2, fully supported the effort to produce a unique package for the machine and made it possible to implement an unusual design. Confronted with problems, they always found solutions instead of raising objections, and considerably enriched the design through their participation.

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