copyright 1994 Tamiko Thiel

Chapter IV. The machine takes form

The inspiration for the design, I believed, should come from the ideas of the computer scientists who were developing the CM-2. Danny Hillis, but also Brewster Kahle and Carl Feynman, with whom I shared an office, were all filled with a passionate and infectious enthusiasm for the machine. They talked of the machine as a cerebral starship, a vehicle that could open up boundless new frontiers, or as an immensely complex, constantly fluctuating electronic society -- the image of an electronic brain.

Their visions of the machine evoked in my mind the sculptures of the Italian artist Arnaldo Pomodoro. His simple, smoothly polished geometric forms cut into or eroded away by deep surface incisions have always suggested strange planets or massive starships to me. Beneath the smooth and the serrated surfaces of his sculptures there seemed to be room for entire worlds, high-technology cultures, long-dead civilizations. His work communicated a sense of immense, seething complexity beneath the surface of a geometric, man-made object.

These were the feelings and images I wanted to capture in the physical form of the CM-2. Aware of the incestuous nature of our relationship to the Connection Machine, we looked for help from impartial, experienced outside viewers as well. The industrial designers Allen Hawthorne and Gordon Bruce, who had had many years of experience designing computer products for IBM, agreed to help us with the detailed design of the machine. Additionally, to make sure we hadn't blinded ourselves to any possibilities, I asked the architect Tom Chytrowsky to spend some time helping me experiment with pure form, brainstorming whatever possible and impossible shapes the machine could take.

But if form should follow function, and function in a computer means the workings of the invisible processors hidden in the silicon chips, then the real function of the CM-2 lay in the way the processors communicated with each other, in the structure of the 12-D hypercube network. Hawthorne and Bruce were themselves convinced from the beginning that the cube-of-cubes was the right shape for the machine: the large cube built up out of 8 smaller cubes, which I had developed as a visual symbol of the CM-2 for internal use at Thinking Machines.

This symbol has been widely published on the Thinking Machines T- shirt worn by Richard Feynman on the cover of his popular book "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" and then made famous when as the "Feynman t-shirt" in the 1990s, when Apple's "Think different" campaign used a photo of him wearing the CM-1 t-shirt. (See Thunkos photo shoot!)

The graphic of a 3-D hypercube represents the "hard" electrical connections of part of the 12-D network, but inside these hard rectangular boxes are the "fuzzy" software connections that can be changed independently of the physical wires and traces.

CM-1 t-shirt design

The hard physical wiring and the soft programmable connections were equally important aspects of the structure of the machine. How could we make something as abstract as a program -- with the intangibility of a speech or a conversation -- visible to the eye? Carl Feynman had described a fantasy of the CM-2 as a vast cloud of lights that flickered as they sent their electronic messages back and forth, like the firing of neurons in a brain. Status lights are commonly installed on printed circuit boards to provide visual monitors of the current state of components -- indicating whether power is "on," or a chip is plugged in properly. Why not use these to make the intangible and unseen activity of the processors visible on the outside of the machine?

Thus, we chose to depict the hardware structure of the machine in the external form of the CM-2 package, and depicted the software connections within this hardware structure using the status lights of the chips: eight cubes, each holding 9 dimensions of the hypercube, are visually plugged together to form the cube-of-cubes, just as the internal electronic components are physically plugged together to form the highest level of the machine, the 12-D hypercube. Through the skin of the machine glow the lights from 4,096 chips, flickering on and off as the processors work in parallel, each one computing its own part of the data. The microscopic elements of the machine, as well as those buried in the confusion of traces and cables, thus become visible and let the machine speak for itself. (click for b/w image)

This would communicate to the viewer the immense complexity hidden beneath the surface of the machine. A massive electronic brain, 1.5 meters in height, it is connected with cables to the data drives that feed its processors information and to the workstations and monitors through which it communicates with its human users. A hard, geometric object, black (the non-color of sheer, static mass), it is filled with a soft, constantly changing cloud of lights, red (the color of life and energy). This would be a way to ornament without decorating, to express a symbolic aspect of the machine using raw form, size and proportion, color and material. (click for color image)

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