Cost of Using a Supercomputer

Felix Tran & Stephan Risi

How much does it cost to run a computer? And who gets access to this limited resource? In the 1950s, it cost as much as $250 to purchase one hour of compute time on MIT’s Whirlwind 1. Adjusted for inflation in 2019, that’s almost $2400. In other words, for one hour of Whirlwind time, you can buy a very expensive laptop with over 1.2 million times more computing power.

Photo of the Whirlwind 1 Supercomputer
Photo of the IBM Whirlwind 1 (credit)

With the Whirlwind 1, MIT was not just figuring out how to use computers but also how to distribute and manage time between dozens of researchers. On one hand, MIT’s accounting of computer usage was extremely meticulous. Whirlwind usage for each individual project was tracked and billed by the second. Researchers regularly received letters that informed them how many minutes they have used. On the other hand, they stuggled with how to evenly allocate computer time for everyone. Take the case of Jack L. Uretsky. In 1955, Uretsky was a physics Ph.D. student, working on a thesis on “Scattering of Zero-Energy Neutrons by a Spheroidal Square Well.” MIT had allocated a total of 5,929.6 minutes for the lab that he was a part of. Out of this time allotment, Uretsky alone used over 64% of the minutes. This is actually a common theme among the given time records. It seems that many researchers, while they understood the potential of Whirlwind 1’s computational power, they were not sure how to apply it. Writing up a program to solve problems was time consuming and people who considered using the computer had to decide if it was worth the time to write the program out or to just do calculations by hand. This gave rise to a new rule with using the Whirlwind 1, the “three man months”. Philip Morse, the director of the Computation Center suggested that it was only worth to use a computer if calculation by hand would take more than three man months. Uretsky, it seems, took advantage of other people’s hesitance to use the allocated computer time for his own project.

It was only towards the end of his thesis research that Frank Verzuh, the Assistant Director of the Computation Center, who kept track of the time records, realized that Uretsky's project had become "quite expensive." Over the previous 14 months, he had used up $18,132.70. This comes out to around $191,260.11 in 2019 dollars! Luckily, Uretsky did not have to pay that. MIT had given each lab a certain amount of computer time. The $250 "regular rate," Verzuh informed him in a letter, didn't apply in his case. Being a graduate student at MIT always had its perks. In the 1950s, for a lucky few, access to supercomputers was one of them.