Archives:From Megaflops to Total Solutions: The Changing Dynamics of Competitiveness in Supercomputing

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In the latter part of the 1980s, headlines in U.S. newspapers suggested that the American supercomputer industry was on the brink of collapse. United States science and technology was losing its competitive advantage because American scientists and engineers did not have sufficient access to supercomputer power. In this article we will examine the validity of these claims and conclude that they are unfounded. To this end, we will first give an historical sketch of the development of supercomputers over the past three decades. We will describe the development of the machines in conjunction with the development of the network of social relationships connected to them. We will trace both how technological development affected social relations and how social relations affected subsequent technological development, creating a coherent "sociotechnical network" which is difficult for outside competitors to break into. In a concluding section we argue that reports on the "bad shape" of the American supercomputer industry are unduly pessimistic because they neglect the coherency of this network and are based on too narrow a view of what is and has been going on.


Boelie Elzen and Donald MacKenzie, "From Megaflops to Total Solutions: The Changing Dynamics of Competitiveness in Supercomputing," in Technological Competitiveness: Contemporary and Historical Perspectives on Electrical, Electronics, and Computer Industries (Piscataway, NJ: IEEE Press, 1993), 119-151.