BACKWARD GLANCE NUCLEAR WEAPONS and the DAWN OF SUPERCOMPUTING
Today, our fastest supercomputers can perform at speeds greater than a petaFLOPS—that's one million billion operations per second. In fact, Los Alamos National Laboratory's Roadrunner was the world's first supercomputer to break the petaFLOPS barrier, as a result enabling researchers to achieve significant scientific breakthroughs.
The road toward achieving petaFLOPS performance is a very long one that started during the darkest days of World War II. In the spring of 1943, scientists from around the world gathered at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project to design the world's first nuclear weapons. Such weapons required mathematical calculations on an unprecedented scale, so scientists turned to machines for assistance.
During the 1940s, the mechanical workhorses of the Laboratory were Marchant desk calculators and IBM accounting machines. The Marchants and IBMs successfully performed calculations pertaining to the physical properties of bomb materials, the hydrodynamics of implosion, and the potential yields of the completed devices. These calculations played an integral role in the success of the Manhattan Project.
During the war, Los Alamos staff pushed existing computing technology to its calculating limits. Scientists pondered building a full-scale computer capable of advanced calculations. A team under the direction of physicist Nicholas Metropolis built the first Los Alamos computer in 1952—the mathematical analyzer, numerical integrator, and computer (MANIAC).
Subsequent versions of the MANIAC featured enhanced speeds and employed floating-point arithmetic. Since then, the Laboratory has partnered with private industry to produce some of the world's most innovative machines. Separate partnerships with Control Data Corporation, Cray Research, Thinking Machines, and IBM have produced computers that have been recognized as the fastest in the world.
Current supercomputers at Los Alamos are used primarily to ensure the safety and reliability of the nation's nuclear deterrent. Scientists at the Laboratory also use the supercomputers for a variety of scientific applications, such as conducting medical research, modeling pandemics, assisting the nation during natural disasters, simulating astronomical phenomena, predicting global climate change, and redesigning the U.S. energy grid.
The continued need for fast, efficient, and reliable computers in the Los Alamos weapons program has largely driven the evolution of supercomputers, prompting Metropolis and Laboratory physicist Frank Harlow to write, "It is a stunning tribute to Los Alamos…that many of the most powerful procedures for taming computers to the myriad tasks of modern science and technology were developed right here…."