Burton Smith, co-founder of supercomputing company Cray, Inc., died this week of complications of heart disease.
Burton Smith, a pioneer in the supercomputing industry and co-founder of Seattle-based Cray, died Monday of complications from heart disease. He was 77.
Mr. Smith was the co-founder of Tera Computer, which later became supercomputer maker Cray, and he went on to become a technical fellow at Microsoft. He was known for deep technical expertise in the field of high-performance computers, but also for his love of singing, his sense of humor and his penchant for being the life of the party.
“He was extremely smart,” said Cray CEO Peter Ungaro, who began working with Mr. Smith in 2003. “We would joke, ‘Hey, Burton, bring that down to our level so we can follow you.’”
Everyone in the supercomputing industry knew him simply as “Burton,” Ungaro said. “It’s like Cher, everybody knows him by first name,” he said.
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Mr. Smith grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Albuquerque and Carpinteria, California. He attended the University of New Mexico briefly, but was not captivated by school and failed all his classes, said Katherine P. Smith, his oldest daughter.
Mr. Smith left to join the Navy, where he worked on nuclear submarines. He later returned to UNM, where this time around, he aced every class.
He met his wife of more than 40 years, Dorothy “Dottie” Smith, at the university. The two had two children, Katherine and Julia J. Smith. Dottie died in 2015.
Mr. Smith’s career took the family from Boston —where he attended graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, after turning down acceptances from both Stanford and Berkeley — to Denver, Washington D.C., and eventually to Seattle.
Mr. Smith was a longtime computer scientist, and was honored with the prestigious Seymour Cray Award in 2003. He was elected that same year as a member of the National Academy of Engineering.
“He knew everything there was to know about semiconductors, power, cooling, overall system architecture, operating systems, compiler technology — you name it, Burton knew it,” said Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in computer science and engineering at the University of Washington. Lazowska helped recruit Burton and Tera Computer co-founder James Rottsolk to Seattle, where they set up shop in Fremont in 1988. “And he was also the nicest and most open and helpful person you can ever imagine.”
When Ungaro joined what was then called Cray in 2003, Mr. Smith was the company’s chief scientist and “one of the smartest guys on pretty much any topic we had on computer architecture,” Ungaro said.
His discoveries and work continue to impact the industry. “The way that we have found to do graph analytics, especially the fastest way possible, was originally conceived by Burton,” Ungaro said.
Mr. Smith joined Microsoft as a technical fellow in 2005. There, he worked with teams on distributed services and quantum computing. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella paid homage to Mr. Smith on Twitter this week, saying “His enthusiasm for asking the big questions and doing the bold work was always a source of inspiration to me.”
While he excelled in computing, Mr. Smith was also the colleague people always wanted to hang out with. He was sociable and funny, Ungaro said, and could often be found in bars with friends, drinking wine and singing songs.
Mr. Smith, along with his wife, also sang in the choir at University Congregational United Church of Christ in Seattle, his daughters said.
He always enjoyed teaching his daughters about math and science, Katherine Smith said. “I think he tried to teach me negative numbers when I was in first grade.”
He loved traveling, his daughters said, and would joke that the best place to spend a Seattle winter was in Hawaii. Mr. Smith and Dottie Smith got interested in boats after moving to Seattle, and used to rent tug boats and just cruise around.
His sense of humor stretched throughout his entire life, extending even to joking with nurses while he was in the hospital before he died, Katherine Smith said.
His daughters are still struck by their father’s generosity, and have spent the last few days reading letters from students who received college scholarships from their parents.
Memorial services for Mr. Smith will be held on May 19 at 2 p.m. at University Congregational Church, 4515 16th Ave NE. Flowers and donations may be sent to the church.