"The Design of the Connection Machine"

copyright 1994 Tamiko Thiel

This text was printed as the lead article in DesignIssues, (Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring 1994,) an academic journal that examines design history, theory, and criticism, published by The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Note that in the inexorable march of technology and market, Thinking Machines Corporation has died as a hardware company and no longer makes Connection Machines. I believe however that the design issues discussed in this article are still valid!


Looking towards the 21st century, scientists have made a list of "Grand Challenges" facing us today, tasks such as the mapping of genetic structures and the modeling of global climates. Whether of a macroscopic or microscopic scale, what these problems have in common is that, until recently, they were considered too complex to analyze. The revolutionary new research tools that make it possible to investigate these problems are the parallel supercomputers -- machines with tens to thousands of multiple processors capable of performing simultaneously calculations that earlier supercomputers had to perform in sequence, one after the other.

One of the leading producers of parallel supercomputers is Thinking Machines Corporation. I was in charge of the mechanical and industrial design group that produced the package used for their first two supercomputers, the Connection Machine CM-1 and the subsequent enhanced version, the CM-2. Our desire to find a form for the machine that expressed its significance in the development of computer technology led us to re-examine the basic tenets of 20th-century design philosophy.

The basis of this philosophy for almost a century, at least for design theorists, has been "form follows function." While both ordinary consumers, as well as acclaimed designers, have staged revolts against the asceticism this dictum seems to prescribe, no one has questioned the soundness of this "rule that shall admit of no exceptions." (1) We, too, took it as the basis for our design exploration, but quickly found that the standard interpretation of this dictum -- whereby form is reduced to the utilitarian minimum necessary to fulfill structural and functional requirements -- was inadequate to our purposes. This interpretation, appropriate to artifacts of the late 19th-century Machine Age, turned out to be inapplicable to the symbolic and abstract machines of our late 20th-century Information Age.

We therefore began a search for a new paradigm for modern design, one that used form to express the functions of machines that manipulate signs and numbers, rather than physical objects. A second component of this paradigm, however, had to address the sterility that the modern movement has left in its wake. Although people have tired of the sublime ascetic purity of the early modern era, the gurus of "good taste" had instilled a permanent feeling of guilt that ornament, indeed anything that cannot be justified on strictly utilitarian grounds, is a "crime," a sign of cultural backwardness or degeneration. (2)

Steeped in the modern esthetic as we were, we could not simply paste decorations on a machine which, in the end, would have to prove its worth by raw technical performance in a fiercely competitive field. Nevertheless, we thought it important to express the emotional significance the machine had for us, and this led us away from what is considered "functional" design. Thinking that we had broken with the past, I discovered to my great surprise that we had, in fact, come full circle. We had fulfilled the original intent of "form follows function" as defined by the originator of the phrase, the American architect Louis Sullivan.

The following case study describes our search for this new paradigm and the solutions we found for the CM-1 and CM-2, solutions which have formed the basis of Thinking Machines' continuing design philosophy for all subsequent machines. Since the CM-2 was superseded in October 1991 by the next generation CM-5, this paper also serves as a valedictory for the original Connection Machine.

(next chapter)