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Father of European supercomputing: Hans Meuer

Kevin Cahill

In the wider circles of European computing, professor Hans Meuer (pictured) was largely unknown. This is a paradox because in a particular and uniquely important part of worldwide computing – the supercomputer community – he was held in near saintly veneration. 

A modest, friendly man despite his extraordinary academic record, his importance lay in two areas. The first was his creation of the International Supercomputing Conference (ISC), started in Germany in 1986, at a time when supercomputing was largely the preserve of just three countries – the US, Japan and Russia.

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That first conference garnered just 81 delegates, compared with the near 3,000 who attended last year’s conference in Hamburg

By the sheer force of his genial personality Meuer built the conference into a combined academic, commercial and fun fest for supercomputer aficionados, east and west. The ISC parties in the Rhineside castles near Dresden were something those lucky enough to be at them will never forget.

People from all over the world attended Meuer's ISC – and it really was his event – to hear the latest ideas in the most extreme of all of mankind’s modern endeavours, supercomputing. 

Sometimes referred to as the Formula 1 of computing, supercomputers are something altogether else. These are the devices that made the human genome mapping project possible, weather forecasting a science, and which will take mankind, all of it, to places and spaces the race never knew existed. Hans Meuer foresaw all that, and was determined that Europe would play a leading role in their development.

Aware as few others were at the time, he surveyed Europe in the 1980s and saw a near technology desert, largely bereft of that one key technology institution – a supercomputing industry or centre that would tow the whole technology sector behind it.

So, by himself, he set out to make one. And he succeeded. ISC draws supercomputer engineers and software makers from every corner of the planet, to share ideas, confer, solve problems and, of course, to have a good time.

With little government help, and relying largely on his own enthusiasm, Meuer made a place for, and kept, Europe in this esoteric game. He was described at a lecture he gave in the House of Lords in 2012 as the “Father of European Supercomputing”.

His second key contribution came when he beguiled a tiny, intense, and geeky community into creating a sort of ultra rich list – the Top 500 supercomputers, topped by the fastest machine on earth, at the time. He broke down barriers between the old East Bloc, the new sunrise East itself, and Europe and America. He introduced the spirit of friendly but fierce competition into this critical area of technology.

Getting yourself top slot in Meuer's 500 became a key goal of the world’s technology superpowers. A goal that whole countries aimed at and spent billions to achieve. It is given to few men or women to really have a hand in shaping the future. Meuer was one of those because he helped shape the destiny of the machines that will shape the human future, all our futures.

Hans Werner Meuer, professor of computer science at the University of Mannheim and chairman of the International Supercomputer Conference (1986) 2001 to 2014, passed away at the age of 77 at his home in Daisbach, Germany, on 20 January 2014.


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