It's now regarded as apocryphal, but the oft repeated legend of Seymour Cray's Tunnel still resonates for me. The founder of pioneering supercomputer company Cray Research allegedly spent free time digging a tunnel beneath his Wisconsin home. Why? If you have to ask, this blog is going to be an uphill walk for you.
Cray had something to say in the world. He could envision things that hadn't been invented yet, and he had the tenacity to apply his formidable skills to the task of bringing them into existence. Not everyone in the computing and electronics world shared similar aspirations, or drive, or (most important) even insight, but nearly everyone came to realize something extraordinary, and often sometimes challenging, from this man from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.
I recall reading about how his family sometimes went a little crazy driving with him on rare road trips. Compelled to create something for which there were no analogues -- blazingly fast computers in an era devoid of computational ubiquity-- he would often demand complete silence in the car so that he could just think without distraction. An unusually physical man, fond of wind surfing before it was the province of hip Gen-Xers , tennis, skiing, and other sports, Cray could focus on intellectual pursuits like a laser. In the nexus of those needs to excel, the story emerged about his tunnel.
It goes roughly like this. Once when some contractors were excavating part of his basement Cray picked up a shovel one night and discovered that in the solitude of sweat, labor, and endless potential for more of the same, he could think. The legend had it that whenever he needed to work on a particular thorny problem in designing an aspect of one of his supercomputers, Cray would retire to his tunnel and work it out underground, cavorting with metaphysical elves who would come and reveal solutions as he hollowed out the Earth.
Reality is probably a little different. The CEO of Cray Research John Rollwagen (whom I had the privilege of interviewing in 1991 for a story I covered at Minnesota Public Radio) likely made it up, basing the tale on a grain of truth embellished with good midwestern storytelling smarts to build a persona about the company's namesake.
Legend or not, it makes sense to me. I find that more and more, Seymour's Tunnel, real or analogous, is the place where I discover my best material. In the solitude of infinite, even useless, labor, things begin to make sense. Without a goal beyond the work itself, we are free to discover those things that really do matter. Heading nowhere for miles on the elliptical machine at the gym, cutting grass that will continue growing the moment I turn off the engine, washing dishes that will just need the same treatment the following day, I sometimes discover those rare molecules that matter in the universe. The moment I do, I find myself in a desperate race to record them, to make them real, to get power flowing through them, just like Cray's computers.
I do not particularly enjoy spending time in Seymour's Tunnel, just as I imagine he (in his legendary form) did not either. But I understand that darkened, silent space. I understand, and I try to keep a good grip on my shovel.