Thinking Machines Corporation

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Thinking Machines Corporation
FoundedMay 1983; 35 years ago (1983-05)
Waltham, Massachusetts, U.S.
Defunct1994; 24 years ago (1994)
HeadquartersCambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.
ProductsCM-1, CM-2, CM-200, CM-5, and CM-5E; DataVault
Number of employees

Thinking Machines Corporation was a supercomputer manufacturer and Artificial Intelligence company[1], founded in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1983 by Sheryl Handler and W. Daniel "Danny" Hillis to turn Hillis's doctoral work at MIT on massively parallel computing architectures into a commercial product known as the Connection Machine. The company moved in 1984 from Waltham to Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, close to the MIT AI Lab. Thinking Machines made some of the most powerful supercomputers of the time, and by 1993 the four fastest computers in the world were Connection Machines[2]. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1994; its hardware and parallel computing software divisions were eventually acquired by Sun Microsystems.

Supercomputer Products[edit]

On the hardware side, Thinking Machines produced a number of Connection Machine models (in chronological order): the CM-1, CM-2, CM-200, CM-5, and the CM-5E. The CM-1 and 2 came first in models with 64K (65,536) bit-serial processors (16 processors per chip) and later, the smaller 16K and 4K configurations. The Connection Machine was programmed in a variety of specialized languages, including *Lisp and CM Lisp (derived from Common Lisp), C* (derived by Thinking Machines from C), and CM FORTRAN. These languages used proprietary compilers to translate code into the parallel instruction set of the Connection Machine. The CM-1 through CM-200 were examples of SIMD architecture (Single Instruction Multiple Data), while the later CM-5 and CM-5E were MIMD (Multiple Instructions Multiple Data) that combined commodity SPARC processors and proprietary vector processors in a "fat tree" network.

All Connection Machine models required a serial front-end processor, which was most often a Sun Microsystems workstation, but on early models could also be a DEC VAX minicomputer or Symbolics LISP machine.

Thinking Machines also introduced an early commercial RAID2 disk array, the DataVault, circa 1988.[3]

Business history[edit]

Advertisement poster at the National Cryptologic Museum

In May 1985, Thinking Machines became the third company to register a .com domain name ( It became profitable in 1989, in part because of its DARPA contracts.[4] The following year, they sold $65 million (USD) worth of hardware and software, making them the market leader in parallel supercomputers. Thinking Machines' primary supercomputer competitor was Cray Research. Other parallel computing competitors included nCUBE, nearby Kendall Square Research and MasPar, which made a computer similar to the CM-2, and Meiko, whose CS-2 was similar to the CM-5. In 1991, DARPA and the Department of Energy reduced their purchases amid criticism they were unfairly favoring Thinking Machines at the expense of Cray, nCUBE and MasPar. Tightening export laws also prevented the most powerful Connection Machines from being exported. By 1992, the company was losing money, and CEO Sheryl Handler was forced out.

Thinking Machines filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August 1994. The hardware portion of the company was purchased by Sun Microsystems, and TMC re-emerged as a small software company specializing in parallel software tools for commodity clusters and data mining software for its installed base and former competitors' parallel supercomputers. In December 1996, the parallel software development section was also acquired by Sun Microsystems.

Thinking Machines continued as a pure data mining company until it was acquired in 1999 by Oracle Corporation. Oracle later acquired Sun Microsystems, thus re-uniting much of Thinking Machines' intellectual property.

The program WAIS, developed at Thinking Machines by Brewster Kahle, would later be influential in starting the Internet Archive and associated projects, including the Rosetta Disk as part of Danny Hillis' Clock of the Long Now.

Architect Greg Papadopoulos later became Sun Microsystems's chief technology officer.


Many of the hardware people left for Sun Microsystems and went on to design the Sun Enterprise series of parallel computers. The Darwin datamining toolkit, developed by Thinking Machines' Business Supercomputer Group, was purchased by Oracle. Most of the team that built Darwin had already left for Dun & Bradstreet soon after Thinking Machines Corporation entered bankruptcy in 1994.

Thinking Machines alumni ("thunkos") helped create several parallel computing software start-ups, including Ab Initio Software, independent to this day; and Applied Parallel Technologies, which was later renamed Torrent Systems and acquired by Ascential Software, which was in turn acquired by IBM.

Besides Hillis, other noted people who worked for or with the company included Greg Papadopoulos, David Waltz, Guy L Steele, Jr., Karl Sims, Brewster Kahle, Bradley Kuszmaul, Carl Feynman, Cliff Lasser, Marvin Denicoff, Alex Vasilevksy, Allan Torres, Richard Fishman, Mirza Mehdi, Alan Harshman, Richard Jordan, Alan Mercer, James Bailey, Tsutomu Shimomura. Among the early corporate fellows of Thinking Machines were Marvin Minsky, Doug Lenat, Stephen Wolfram, Tomaso Poggio, Richard Feynman, and Jack Schwartz, later joined by Charles E. Leiserson, Alan Edelman, Eric Lander, and Lennart Johnsson.

DARPA's Connection Machines were decommissioned by 1996.[5]

References in popular culture[edit]

In the 1993 film Jurassic Park, Connection Machines (non-functioning dummies) are visible in the park's control room, programmer Dennis Nedry mentions "eight Connection Machines"[6] and a video about dinosaur cloning mentions "Thinking Machines supercomputers".

In the 1996 film Mission Impossible, Luther Stickell asks Franz Krieger for "Thinking Machine laptops" to help hack into the CIA's Langley supercomputer.[7]

Tom Clancy's novel Rainbow Six speaks of the NSA's "star machine from a company gone bankrupt, the Super-Connector from Thinking Machines, Inc., of Cambridge, Massachusetts" in the NSA's basement. In addition, in The Bear and the Dragon says the National Security Agency could crack nearly any book or cipher with one of three custom operating systems designed for a Thinking Machines supercomputer.

In the 2008 video game Fallout 3, it is mentioned that the pre war company that made the computer systems for Vaults is called Think Machine; a reference to the Thinking Machines Corporation.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Thinking Machines". Technology Review. November 1, 2006.
  2. ^ "Sublist Generator | TOP500 Supercomputer Sites". Retrieved 2018-04-29.
  4. ^ U.S. Awards Computer Contract The New York Times
  5. ^ SCD supercomputers, past and present (grouped by vendor) CISL Supercomputer Gallery
  6. ^ Movie Quotes Database
  7. ^ See wikiquote:Mission: Impossible (film)

External links[edit]