Los Alamos National Laboratory and the birth of computing

IBM and LANL collaborated on the Roadrunner supercomputer, which in 2008, became the first computer to exceed 1 petaflops, or one quadrillion double-precision operations per second. (Photo: LANL/File)

As necessity begets invention, Los Alamos National Laboratory, with its enormous computational needs, has served as a major gestation site for the development of the computer and the technologies surrounding it.


Los Alamos is, of course, the site where the first atomic weapon was developed during the Manhattan Project in World War II. For project scientists at that time, a 'computer' was a person, frequently one of the physicists' wives, tasked with performing endless, tedious calculations on a mechanical calculator. Unfortunately, the calculators tended to break down with heavy use and it took too much time to ship them back and forth to the manufacturer. So the great physicist Richard Feynman, truly a multifaceted genius, was pressed into service as high-powered calculator repairman. Later, IBM punched card machines were procured as replacements. 

After the war, Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller had determined that a hydrogen fusion bomb was possible, but the computational needs for that project were an order of magnitude greater than the atomic bomb. Cybernetics pioneer John Von Neumann translated the mathematical formulations required for the fusion bomb into instructions for a new electronic computer called ENIAC, developed at the University of Pennsylvania, originally for the mundane purpose of reckoning ballistic trajectories. The fusion calculations consumed one million punch-cards.

A successor to ENIAC, called MANIAC (Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator, and Computer), was later built in Los Alamos, using a new architecture developed by Von Neumann. Previously, most computers had been single purpose machines. The Von Neumann architecture, with a separate central processing unit, memory, and input-output mechanisms, allowed for stored program computers and became the basis of a new industry. IBM hired von Neumann as a consultant and began producing stored program computers in 1952; IBM's ascendancy as a computer company had begun.

IBM and Los Alamos have collaborated more recently on the Roadrunner supercomputer, which in 2008, became the first computer to exceed 1 petaflops, or one quadrillion double-precision operations per second. The Roadrunner differs from most of its supercomputer predecessors in using off-the-shelf electronics. It is Linux- based and its accelerators are modified versions of those used in the Sony Play Station 3. Los Alamos now has a faster supercomputer on site called the Cielo, built by Cray Computers, for national security purposes involving the safety and effectiveness of our nuclear weapons.  

Due to delayed projects and budget restrictions, Los Alamos National Laboratory is today facing severe cutbacks in personnel--perhaps now would be a good time for us to appreciate just how much this institution has meant to science, technology and this country.

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