In the late Eighties I was working in the White House and got very involved in promoting US high technology competitiveness. Of particular interest and importance was the small US supercomputing industry. Through my work I happened to meet and get to know John Rollwagen, CEO of Cray Research. During that time the Science Advisor to the President, who happened to be my boss, decided he wanted to visit Cray Research and meet Seymour Cray, it’s resident genius and pioneering founder. After some difficulty I was able to arrange the trip to the small town of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin to visit Cray’s research and manufacturing facility and get together with Seymour and John. It was a visit I will never forget, beginning with our lunch together at the Flame. I never saw or spoke to the “father of supercomputing” again but I will always cherish the memories of that great day! Tragically Seymour died in 1996 due to injuries suffered in a car crash.
Another takeaway from the trip was a copy of the book Cray at Chippewa Falls, by the great Lee Friedlander, given to me and signed with a nice inscription by John Rollwagen. I own it proudly and take it out from time to admire the photographs it contains and to remember that day so long ago.
So what about the book? Friedlander was commissioned by Cray Research to document the workings of the company for its 15th anniversary in business. To me Cray at Chippewa Falls is a wonderful example of a documentary project that includes environmental portraits of Cray workers, the town of Chippewa Falls where they worked and lived, and the surrounding countryside. The book contains almost 80 black and white photographs and is beautifully printed. They do a great job of capturing what it was like for those building the enormous and state of the art supercomputing machines 30 years ago in small town middle America.
One of the most fascinating things is the obvious dichotomy between the work “Crayons” did in their high tech day jobs and their lives outside the company in Chippewa Falls. By looking at these wonderful images you gain a strong sense of what it was like to build these great machines, that were so powerful for their time, yet today would be rivaled by something you can hold in the palm of your hand. At the same time you get a real sense of the beauty and vibrancy of small town life in America’s heartland during what now seems to be a much, much different time.
Cray at Chippewa Falls had only one printing run and is accordingly somewhat of a rare and pricy book, yet it is certainly available. I’m not sure how it compares with other Friedlander books, as it’s the only one I own. But one thing I’m sure of is that you couldn’t find a better guide for what to do if you wished to create your own documentary project on the area you live in and those that work and live there too. For this reason, for all the great images, and of course for those reasons that are personal to me, I am extremely grateful to own this wonderful book.