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Firm's Closing Spells End for Supercomputer Competition

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Virginia educators whose school won a $1-million supercomputer last year in a widely publicized contest expressed dismay last week over the unexpected end of the national competition.

The closing of the "Superquest" competition after only one year was the result of a decision by the Control Data Corporation to shut down eta Systems Inc., its supercomputer subsidiary and the contest's sponsor.

The move was "a terrible blow to computer education," according to a teacher at the Annandale, Va., high school that won the competition.

Donald W. Hyatt, laboratory director for the computer-science center at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, said the planned repetition of the contest this year could have played a major role in stimulating creative thinking among advanced computer students.

Mr. Hyatt noted that the 2,000 entries in this year's competition had already been reduced to 71 teams of finalists, who would have gone through further intensive tests of programming skill and originality before a winner was selected.

Last summer, a team of four students coached by Mr. Hyatt won the eta10 supercomputer, which can perform as many as 375 million calculations per second.

Published reports said that the Minnesota-based corporation closed eta Systems as part of $490-million restructuring plan aimed at halting a six-year financial slump. The company reportedly lost more than $100 million last year on its supercomputer operations.

Still, Mr. Hyatt said, "a seed has been planted" at Thomas Jefferson, which proposes to make its machine a "regional resource" for schools in the Washington area.

Moreover, officials at the school expressed confidence last week that Control Data's decision would not cripple operation of the supercomputer.

Under contest rules, eta Systems not only installed the machine, but also promised to operate and maintain it for two years, at an estimated monthly cost of $10,000.

"The phone conversations that we've had with Control Data indicate that they will continue to honor the contract," said Geoffrey Jones, the school's principal. "They don't want to generate ill will."

Thomas Charland, a spokesman for Control Data, said that the school's device will be serviced by the special support team that works on the more than 30 eta10 machines installed nationwide.

Mr. Jones added that the school still intends to have Carl D. Ledbetter, whom he described as the "visionary" founder of eta Systems, as its graduation speaker.--pw

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