New display at Northborough library celebrates supercomputer history

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A supercomputer display was recently set up inside the Northborough Free Library. (Photo/via Northborough Free Library)

NORTHBOROUGH – A new display at the Northborough Free Library shows computer chips and 7-foot-square blow-up plot pictures of their internal design as part of a parallel supercomputer from the 1990s. 

It’s part of an effort to preserve a piece of computer history, which display donor Dick Swee worries is becoming lost. 

“I think there’s a lot of stuff that’s getting lost because either people have moved away or they don’t have a place to put these things or keep them,” Swee said in a recent interview.

Region enjoys place in computer history

Many people in the MetroWest area worked in computer development in the 1980s and 1990s. Along the way, Swee, who worked in the industry, said he encouraged some of them to find ways to preserve any artifacts they had, rather than throw them away.

Swee explained that a particular supercomputer he helped design originally had five processing chips in its main board. Two of those chips are now in the Northborough Library. The other three have been lost.

The supercomputer Swee worked on was designed to run a version of the UNIX OSF-1 operating system for a startup called Kendall Square Research. The supercomputer could take existing applications and break them up into different parts that could run at the same time.

One of the ways it was used was for weather forecasts, using its increased accuracy to break the Earth into smaller areas for analysis and forecasting. 

“With one processor, it becomes hard to do the whole Earth, but if you can do thousands of processors you can break the land area into smaller and smaller squares,” Swee said. “Then, you can predict the weather for more specific areas and more accurately.”

Swee said the computer was also used commercially for transaction processing, particularly for reservation systems used by airlines. 

Display finds home in Northborough

Swee searched for different locations seeking a venue for the display donation. The Northborough Free Library ended up being a good fit.

“When the supercomputer was developed, the headquarters were in Waltham and the people who worked on it, at this point, are dispersed all over the country and the world,” Swee said. “A lot of them are still in the area but not everybody.”

The supercomputer display was framed and hung by John Gaston of Gastonart & Frame, Inc.

It can be viewed in the computer room of the Northborough Free Library.

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