Competition with fancy machines and wads of cash, state schools steal national center scientists

Christmas came early in 1985 for serious number crunchers. In the spring of that year, the National Science Foundation christened five national supercomputing centers and sent them forth into the world to meet the grand challenges of science and engineering. The NSF's idea was to fund these silicon meccas so that they could maintain state-of-the-art technical facilities and provide supercomputing services to a nation of users.

With top machinery and personnel, these five centers, located at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Illinois, Princeton, Cornell, and the University of California, San Diego, were to stimulate world-class research and analysis in everything from pure mathematics to fluid dynamics, helping to bolster U.S. leadership in science and technology. With federal money behind them, the centers soon had the biggest, fastest, and fanciest machines avail- able.

This primacy,...

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