The newest arrival at Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Living Computer Museum in Seattle is a big one — both literally and figuratively. Weighing more than 10,000 pounds, the Control Data Corporation 6500 is part of a line of machines that were the first to be called “supercomputers.” Each of its three giant bays has its own refrigeration system.
This particular CDC 6500 was turned off in 1989 after two decades at Purdue University. Now, Allen’s engineers in Seattle are preparing to bring it back to life. The project will take an estimated two years — and there’s no guarantee that the effort will succeed.
“It is a much larger project for us than we’ve ever dealt with … and it’s going to be close to the oldest thing we have in the museum,” said Robert Michaels, engineering manager at the Living Computer Museum. “So it’s a big, big deal for us.”
It’s believed to be the only machine of its type that could be brought back to life. The CDC 6500 was acquired by Allen for an undisclosed sum from the Chippewa Falls, Wis., Museum of Industry and Technology, and carefully shipped across the country to the museum, between the Starbucks headquarters and Seattle’s pro sports stadiums south of downtown.
Working as an engineer at the Living Computer Museum must qualify as one of the most interesting jobs in technology. Ian King, a senior vintage systems engineer who was my tour guide on a recent visit, acknowledged that he’s like a kid in a candy shop.
But restoring the CDC 6500 will be no walk in the park.
Developed by the late supercomputing pioneer Seymour Cray in the 1960s, the CDC 6500 an example of pure, brute-force computing — a machine that uses any means (and size) necessary to provide the computing power necessary to meet the needs of its users. Its predecessor, the CDC 6600, was first delivered to the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, providing the computational horsepower required for atomic bomb simulations, and it’s credited for helping to win the Cold War.
One of the biggest challenges: The machine used liquid coolant — no fans. Each of the three bays has its own refrigeration unit, and the engineers will need to get them working again before the machine can run.
“We have to get the refrigeration system working. We can’t even begin to power it up without it,” said Michaels. “You power it up for a few minutes (without refrigeration) and you’ve got a mess on your hands.”
The museum has already assembled a team to evaluate the refrigeration system and create a plan for bringing it back to life. This will require not only restoring the system inside the CDC 6500 but also constructing an associated cooling system on the roof of the building.
Another challenge: the complex network of cabling that connects the three bays was cut long ago, after the machine was removed from service, and will need to be reconnected as part of the restoration. That’s just one of the obstacles that the Living Computer Museum’s engineers will need to overcome to get the machine running again.
Then there’s the final challenge: No cheating allowed.
“We have to be careful about authenticity,” Michaels explained. “It’s so easy to emulate various functions of a system. You could easily replace one of these with a Raspberry Pi, and nobody could tell the difference. We want to adhere to authenticity. People have to know that this thing is really what it was.”
If all goes as planned, the restored CDC 6500 will greet visitors when they arrive at the Living Computer Museum in a couple of years.
In the meantime, if you want to follow along, the museum is posting regular updates about the CDC 6500 restoration on its Facebook page, including answers to technical questions about the planned operation of the machine.