Thomas Peter / REUTERS A child climbs onto a giant mockup keyboard at a shopping center in Beijing, July 2016.

The Origins of Chinese Supercomputing

And an American Delegation's Mao-Era Visit

In June, the Sunway TaihuLight, a Chinese supercomputer, rose to the top of an international ranking of the world’s high-performance computers. Chinese computers have led TOP500's rankings for years, but the TaihuLight is different: unlike most of China’s other superfast computers, which use processors designed in the United States, it was built with the Chinese-made SW26010 many-core processor, supplied by the Shanghai High Performance IC Design Center. In other words, the new rankings showed that China’s domestic computing industry has come into its own. 

The news of this homegrown success may come as a surprise to those who question the ability of China’s indigenous high-tech sector to innovate. Yet China’s computing industry has a long history of going it alone. 

In fact, 44 years ago this summer, a group of U.S. citizens visited China in what was likely the first delegation of American computer scientists to make a trip to the People’s Republic. Arriving in China only months after the epochal February 1972 visit to the country by U.S. President Richard Nixon, the team came to learn more about what China’s computer engineers had been up to during the many years of U.S.–Chinese estrangement.

In 1958, a group of engineers at the Institute of Military Engineering in Harbin had created China's first vacuum-tube computer. The country's computing industry advanced in fits and starts after that, initially with the support of Soviet engineers. Then, in 1960, the Sino-Soviet Split dealt Chinese computing a major blow, as Moscow rapidly withdrew its advisers—and their technical expertise—from China. Yet in the decade that followed, Chinese engineers managed to carry on alone. By the time the American delegation arrived in Guangzhou in July 1972, China had developed a computing industry capable of producing a third-generation computer—a smaller, faster breed of machine based on integrated circuits rather than individual transistors. What was even more surprising: these integrated circuits were being built domestically.


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