Storytime: Sometimes You Have To Dig

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Gather ’round, kids. I’m gonna be awhile.

This is so weird.

Years ago (I’m talking 35+ years ago) my dad told me a story that changed my life. As a young lad, I seemed to be forever coming to him with endless questions and queries. He always made time to help me, but he had a way of always couching the lesson he desired to impart on me in story or parable form.

One particular day I was struggling with something or other, so I went to him for advice. Instead of telling me what he thought I should do, he told me about a man named Seymour Cray. He said Cray was a genius electrical engineer who had succeeded in designing and building the world’s largest, fastest and most powerful super-computers. I’m not talking about computers like we have today. I’m talking about mainframe boxes from the 60′s that were the size of small buildings!

Anyway, the story, as my dad told it, was that when Cray would be working on an extremely complex and technically challenging project in his home and got to the point where he was at an impasse with the project he would begin digging. Like, actually digging with a shovel outside his home. My dad reasoned that when someone is concentrating so hard and long on a problem that’s right in front of them, they would get myopic (my dad also challenged my vocabulary) and begin to tire the part of the brain working on the solution. So, he said, Cray’s strategy was brilliant because it got him using a completely different part of the brain and, after digging awhile, the solution would just “come to him”.

“Come to him?”

“Yes”. My dad continued, telling me about a system of tunnels Cray dug under his house and that elves would begin to visit him in the tunnels. No, seriously. It was the elves, my dad would say, that delivered the solutions to Cray. I’m not gonna lie, it was stuff like this that made me worry about my dad more than once. But wait, there’s more.

Now the really weird part.

For the past 35 years, when presented with the right opportunity, I’ve told people this same story. But I’ve never mentioned the part about the elves. To tell you the truth, I was never sure if this story was real or my dad made it all up. Honestly, I didn’t even know if Seymour Cray actually existed, let alone the elves that supposedly helped make him the most successful electrical engineer and computer architect of an entire generation. All these years, I never thought to look it up, I just kept repeating my dad’s story as a sort of legendary folk tale. And after enough years went by, I guess I stopped wondering if it was true.

A few days ago, I had a friend in my studio doing some recording. I told her the story of Seymour Cray and, to my surprise, she knew who I was talking about! After telling her the part about the digging and the tunnels (but not that elves, that would be crazy, right?) I told her I might finally look Cray up on the interwebs and see if my dad’s story was true. But, to be honest, part of me didn’t want to. It’s been 35 years and why spoil my dad’s great folk tale now? If I found out it wasn’t really true, would it undermine the lesson?

But today, something made me change my mind. I went looking for answers. And guess what.

My dad was right. It was all true.

According to this article, which first appeared in Personal Computer World magazine in February 1997:

“There are many legends about Seymour Cray. John Rollwagen, a colleague for many years, tells the story of a French scientist who visited Cray’s home in Chippewa Falls. Asked what were the secrets of his success, Cray said ‘Well, we have elves here, and they help me’. Cray subsequently showed his visitor a tunnel he had built under his house, explaining that when he reached an impasse in his computer design, he would retire to the tunnel to dig. ‘While I’m digging in the tunnel, the elves will often come to me with solutions to my problem’, he said.”

All these years. It was all real. The man. The computers. The tunnels.

And the elves.

I can imagine some of you are saying to yourselves right now “Duh, I knew all that”. But you know what? I’m happy I didn’t know. I’m glad no one spoiled the surprise that took me 35 years to find. It feels like this mystery was left to me by my dad. It was my job to figure it out someday. When I was ready.

And, in some small way, it feels like he’s still with me. Helping me. Challenging me.

Teaching me.

I spent quite a bit of time this afternoon reading about this eccentric man, Seymour Cray. According to Frank Sumner, Professor of Computer Engineering at the University of Manchester, who met him on several occasions, Cray “was a very friendly man, and perhaps the greatest all-round computer scientist ever”.

I suppose one could say Cray was one of the most brilliant minds ever and not be overstating the truth. But, while Cray was brilliant, if you ask me, my dad was one of the WISEST men who ever lived. How do I know?

An elf told me.