#25 – “Cray”

Seymour Roger Cray was an American supercomputer engineer. Beneath his suburban home he constructed a series of tunnels. When Cray reached a creative impasse he would retire below. “While I’m digging, the elves will often come to me with solutions to my problem”

The concept of folkloric creatures or even demi deities helping humans with their work can be found across many cultures. In Slavic Paganism the Domovoy (“House Lord”) is usually represented as an old, gray-haired man with bright eyes. He (his female counterpart, Domania, being rather more rare), sometimes shows himself in the form of a visiting animal, sometimes in the shape of a departed ancestor, occasionally with the addition of a tail and small horns. Offerings of leftover food, slices of salted bread, and prayers were (and are) made to the Domovoy in order that he keep the home and its occupants safe.  

The house Brownies of Scotland and the Hobs of England were once left similar offerings, sometimes in exchange for minor domestic chores such as sweeping up, but mostly in an effort to stop them causing mischief such as hiding keys and other small objects.   

Perhaps the most famous instance of Other Folk helping humans with their work is recorded in the Fairy Tale The Elves and the Shoemaker as recorded by brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm in their  Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) of 1891. More modern, and surprising stories do exist however, with the Fae offering their expertise in very modern ways.  

Arthur Edward Stilwell (1859 -1928) was the founder of Kansas City Southern Railway and of Port Arthur, Texas. After his retirement in 1912, Arthur wrote several books detailing his life and works. Something which attracted particular attention in these memoirs was Stilwell’s admission that “Brownies” had assisted him throughout his life and career. These creatures visited Stilwell at night and advised him, even supposedly telling him which railways and bridges he should undertake to build next.  

Seymour Roger Cray (1925 – 1996) was an American electrical engineer and supercomputer architect who designed a series of computers which were, for a long time, the fastest in the world. He is known today as “the Father of Supercomputing”. In 1997 – the year after Cray’s death – an article published in Personal Computer World revealed some interesting mythology surrounding the man and his methods.

There are many legends about Seymour Cray. John Rollwagen, a colleague for many years, tells the story of a French scientist who visited Cray’s home in Chippewa Falls. Asked what were the secrets of his success, Cray said “Well, we have elves here, and they help me”. Cray subsequently showed his visitor a tunnel he had built under his house, explaining that when he reached an impasse in his computer design, he would retire to the tunnel to dig. “While I’m digging in the tunnel, the elves will often come to me with solutions to my problem”, he said. 

Whether we’re supposed to take it that Cray’s elves were literal Other Folk, or a kind of metaphorical muse I cannot be sure.