Jim Masocco recalls Seymour Cray Stories – With Interview

Cray Stories

During the 25 years that I worked for Cray I was fortunate enough to meet many interesting people and hear many stories and urban legends about Seymour Cray, the company as well as interesting events that happened in the field. In some cases I even got to hear the story behind the story. I have collected as many of these stories as I can remember, but as I heard many of them over 30 years ago, I apologise if some of the details are not quite right, but this is as best as I can remember them.

James Masocco – December 2023

First some extracts of an Interview with the Founder himself Seymour Cray. Extracted from a recently rediscovered 1985 training tape. 

Seymour Cray Stories

Tunnel stories.

There are many stories about Seymour digging tunnels under his home and in some of these stories the tunnels evolve into a network crisscrossing all over the place. One chap who had worked in manufacturing in Chippewa for quite a while told me what he said was the real story behind the tunnel legend. It seems a reporter managed to arrange an interview with Seymour Cray, this is probably the hardest part of the story to believe, and came over to his house to talk with him in his study. During the interview the reporter asked Seymour what he did when he couldn’t solve a problem and supposedly Seymour told him the following. He said that sometimes when he is working he gets stuck on a problem that he knows he is not bright enough to work out the answer to, so he leaves his desk and goes into the basement and digs in his tunnel for a while. He then said that while he is digging the forest elves come into his study and walk across his desk and see the problem that he is stuck at and laugh as it is easy for them to solve. They leave a clue for him and when he returns to his desk he realises how simple the answer is and then is able to resume work.

The story goes that the reporter liked the bit about digging a tunnel, but thought the forest elf part was a bit silly, so when he wrote the story he only mentioned the tunnel digging and made it sound like it was something he did every day. The chap who told me this story said that Seymour may have dug 4 or 5 yards of tunnel in his basement, but no more than that and he definitely never dug a tunnel to another building.

Boat build and burning.

There was a story that I heard early on during my time with Cray that during the winter Seymour would design a sail boat that either he built or had built and that during the Summer he would sail the boat. Then as Winter approached he would hold a party and burn the boat, so that during the coming Winter he could design a new boat on a clean sheet of paper without being held back by last year’s ideas. In other words, “Revolution not Evolution”.

Seymour Cray did at some point design a sailing boat that he sailed in the Summer and he may have even held a party and burned it in the fall, but the story that he did this every year is an exaggeration. As one chap in Chippewa told me “he may have done it once, but if he did it every year he would never have had enough time to design and build supercomputers!”

Olson’s Ice Cream

Since 1944 Olson’s Ice Cream has been making and serving ice cream from its Bridge Street shop in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. A long time Cray employee told me that when she use to work at the Hallie lab, Seymour would sometimes come into the main work area and put $50 on the table and tell everyone to take a break and go into town and get some ice cream at Olson’s. This lady had worked with Seymour long enough to know that he wasn’t really concerned that it was a hot day and that everyone would enjoy the break and some ice cream, but that while everyone was away he would have the place to himself and for an hour would have peace and quiet and could concentrate and get some work done.

Les Davies recollection of Seymour

On one of my trips to Chippewa Falls I was lucky enough to meet Les Davies at the Chippewa Falls Museum of Industry and Technology. The museum houses the Seymour Cray Supercomputer Collection and Les gave me a tour of the collection and talked about the history of Cray Research and told several stories about the development of some of the systems. At the end of the tour we came up to a display that had Seymour Cray’s desk. Les stopped at the desk and noted that the pencil had been moved and was crooked. With his finger he pushed the pencil so that the pencil, the workbook and the desk edge were all either parallel or at right angles and said that this was exactly how you would find Seymour’s desk whether he was working at it or away from it. Les said that sometimes Seymour would come into his office to discuss something and while talking would absent-mindedly push a ruler or a pen on his desk with his finger so that it lined up parallel. He seemed to like symmetry.


Seymour Cray’s desk in the Chippewa Falls Museum of Industry and Technology

I asked Les several questions about Seymour Cray and one of these was how smart was he really. I asked if he knew a lot about science, history and general knowledge. I remember asking, if Seymour went on “Who wants to be a millionaire” would he have won easily. Les thought for a second or two and said “No, I don’t think he would have.”, but he then went on to tell me that Seymour had two very special qualities that set him apart. The first was that he could visualize in his head the entire layout of a computer. All the paths that the bits had to travel and all the logic that needed to occur in each functional unit. He could see it all and he could keep it in his head. The second special quality was that he could then sit down at a desk and line by line write down the Boolean logic which described each bit’s path through the system and the operations that happened to each bit. This Boolean logic was then used by the engineers to layout the system modules. Les said that this was his real genius. He could sit at his desk for hours writing line after line of Boolean and it was extremely rare for him to have to use the eraser on the end of his pencil.


The story goes that Seymour did not suffer fools gladly and when someone said or did something particularly stupid Seymour would go to his typewriter and type a memo to HR saying “I want ‘person’s name’ moved somewhere else. He would then sign the letter “S Cray”. Because the signature looked like the word “scray”, when one of these memos would turn up people would remark that another person got “scrayed”.

Dinner party story

A lady that I knew in Chippewa Falls once told me that she had been to a dinner party at Seymour’s house. She told the story that Seymour’s wife, whom she knew, had arranged the dinner and that while she was sitting at the table next to an empty chair was surprised to turn and suddenly find Seymour sitting next to her as the food was being served. She said that he was very pleasant and that they chatted during the meal, but after they finished eating she turned to now find an empty chair next to her. Seymour’s wife must have noticed her surprise and said to her “he has important work to do, don’t worry he will be back for dessert.”  Then, later on as dessert was being served she turned and suddenly found Seymour sitting next to her again ready for dessert.

Seymour’s father

I was told a story about Seymour’s father that I cannot confirm is true or not, but only that over the years several people in Chippewa Falls told me the same story. The story goes that Seymour’s father was an engineer that worked for the city of Chippewa Falls and that soon after  he retired was contacted by the engineer that replaced him asking where he could find all the maps showing the locations of the power, water and sewer utilities. Seymour’s father said that there weren’t any maps, because he knew where everything was. The engineer then said that he needed to locate a pipe in a particular street and had no way of knowing where to dig to find it, to which Seymour’s father told him to go to the street corner, go east “X” feet then go south “Y” feet and to dig there. Sure enough the pipe was exactly where he said it would be. The story then goes on further to say that Seymour’s father was then hired back for a period of time to draw up maps, from memory, showing where all the utilities were located in the city.

Designed a computer while home sick with the flu.

The CDC 160 was a desk size computer that Seymour Cray supposedly designed while home sick with the flu. The story goes that he was bored with nothing to do and decided to design a computer that fitted in a desk. 

The CDC 160 Electronic Data Processing Computer

CDC 160 in the Chippewa Falls Museum of Industry and Technology

Original design concept for the Cray 2

Following Seymour Cray’s death the scale model and drawing shown below were found while cleaning out one of his residences.

The model shows the initial design concept for the Cray 2 with the modules located in a transparent bubble that sat on top of four blocks that each housed a power supply. The picture shows a later iteration of the design that is closer to the final Cray 2 layout, but doesn’t have the characteristic “C” shape. After it was realised that access for wire mat repairs was necessary the classic “C” shape was then adopted. 




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