thinking machines corporation

Thinking Machines

Thinking Machines Corporation was a supercomputer manufacturer founded in Waltham, Massachusetts in 1982 by W. Daniel "Danny" Hillis and Sheryl Handler to turn Hillis's doctoral work at MIT on massively parallel computing architectures into a commercial product called the Connection Machine. The company moved in 1984 from Waltham to Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, close to the MIT AI Lab and Thinking Machines' competitor Kendall Square Research. Besides Kendall Square Research, Thinking Machines' competitors included MasPar, which made a computer similar to the CM-2, and Meiko, whose CS-2 was similar to the CM-5. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1994, with its hardware and parallel computing software divisions eventually acquired by Sun Microsystems.

"We're building a machine that will be proud of us." – Thinking Machines' motto


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 smaller numbered versions (16,384 (16K) and 4,096 (4K) processors). The Connection Machine was programmed in a variety of specialized languages, including *Lisp and CM Lisp (derived from Common Lisp), C* (derived from C), and CM FORTRAN (using a special compiler to translate standard Fortran code to the parallel instruction set of the 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) using commodity SPARC processors using a "fat tree" interconnect. Thinking Machines also introduced the first commercial RAID disk array, called the DataVault, in 1985.

The CM-2 required a Symbolics 3600 LISP machines as a front-end processor; later models used Sun Microsystems workstations or VAX minicomputers.

Thinking Machines developed the C* programming language as an extension of the C programming language for the Connection Machine data parallel computing system.

Business history

Thinking Machines became profitable in 1989 thanks to its DARPA contracts, and in 1990 the company had $65 million (USD) in revenue, making it the market leader in parallel supercomputers. In 1991, DARPA reduced its purchases amid criticism it was unfairly subsidizing Thinking Machines at the expense of other vendors like Cray, IBM, and in particular, NCUBE and MasPar. By 1992 the company was losing money again, due to lack of business; CEO Sheryl Handler was forced out in the face of public criticism.

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 business was acquired by Sun Microsystems, forming the basis of Sun's entry into High Performance Computing.

Thinking Machines continued as a pure data mining company until it was acquired in 1999 by Oracle Corporation.

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.

Key architect Greg Papadopoulos later became Sun Microsystems, Inc.'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 left for Dun & Bradstreet soon after the company entered bankruptcy.

Thinking Machines alumni ("thunkos") were instrumental in forming several parallel computing software start-ups, including Ab Initio Software and Applied Parallel Technologies. Ab Initio is still an independent company; Applied Parallel Technologies, later renamed to Torrent Systems, was acquired by Ascential Software, which was in turn acquired by IBM.

Besides Danny 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, Charles E. Leiserson, Marvin Minsky, Carl Feynman, Cliff Lasser, Alex Vasilevsky, Doug Lenat, Stephen Wolfram, Eric Lander, Richard Feynman, Mirza Mehdi, Alan Harshman, Alan Mercer, James Bailey, Tsutomu Shimomura and Jack Schwartz.

DARPA's Connection Machines were decommissioned by 1996.

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