Africans Can Do It – Meet Philip Emeagwali, The Nigerian Scientist Who Designed The Program And Formula For The Fastest Computer On Earth

My Information and Communication Technology lessons in high school were mainly dominated by details and references to Charles Babbage and his contributions to the computing brand. And for many people, especially the black race, the glorious and prominent part of our history is largely concealed by strings of western dominated ideals and thoughts – the educational curriculum being caught in that web. Thus, we must relive those glorious moments and retell our stories.

The development of the computer cannot be discussed without mentioning Philip Emeagwali.

Philip Emeagwali is a computer scientist and engineer who is best known for utilizing the connection machine and 65,536 microprocessors to achieve 3.1 billion calculations per second, the fastest computational record at the time. Emeagwali is often credited for creating the fastest computer.

Philip Emeagwali was born on August 23rd, 1954, in Akure, Nigeria. Hailing from the Igbo tribe, he was the oldest of nine children conceived by James and Agatha Emeagwali. From a tender and innocent age, Emeagwali’s father tutored him in mathematics, which germinated his interest in the subject. He performed mental exercises such as solving math problems in an hour. His father confessed to teaching him until Emeagwali “knew more than he did.” In 1966, Philip Emeagwali enrolled in a Catholic elementary school in Eastern Nigeria, originally run by the British. Throughout his academic time, Emeagwali excelled phenomenally in several subjects. However, his time there was interfered with when the country’s civil war forced him and his family to migrate to a refugee camp. He served as a cook in the Biafran army before the war ended in 1970.

Philip Emeagwali resumed his education when he gained high school admission at Christ the King College in Onitsha, Nigeria. Typical of African children, he dropped out due to financial problems. Emeagwali would instead self-study study. He paraded to the public library, spending the better part of his day there. Emeagwali pervaded through books appropriate for his age and subsequently progressed to the college-level. Mathematics, chemistry, physics, and English were of key interest to his study. When the Nigerian Engineer had learned all he could from his solo discoveries, he applied to take the General Certificate of Education exam. He easily passed the high school equivalency test that was organized by the University of London in 1973. At 17, Philip Emeagwali was awarded a scholarship to study at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, and he earned his bachelor of science degree in mathematics from the institution in 1977. Alas, it was here that Emeagwali’s interest in computers arose. However, Philip Emeagwali was just taking a step in his education. He moved to Washington, D.C., and received a Master’s Degree in Environmental Engineering from George Washington University in 1981 and a second Master’s Degree in Applied Mathematics from the University of Maryland in 1986. During this period, he received another Master’s Degree from George Washington University, specializing in Ocean, Coastal, and Marine Engineering.

In 1987, Philip Emeagwali was ushered into the University of Michigan’s Civil Engineering doctoral program and received a doctoral fellowship. At Michigan, he cooperated in the scientific community’s debate on how to simulate the discovery of oil reservoirs using a supercomputer. Nigeria is an oil-rich nation and in understanding how oil is extracted, Emeagwali thought it proper to use this problem as the subject of his doctoral dissertation.

Lending an idea from a science fiction story about weather predictions, Emeagwali decided that rather than using 8 expensive supercomputers, he would employ thousands of microprocessors to do the computation.

SUPERCOMPUTING

Philip Emeagwali’s research findings had led him to a machine called the Connection Machine at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which had been left unutilized because scientists had given up on figuring out how to make it simulate nuclear explosions. The machine was designed to run 65,536 interconnected microprocessors. In 1987, he applied for and was granted permission to use the machine. From Michigan, he set the parameters and ran his program. Apart from correctly computing the amount of oil in the simulated reservoir, the machine was successfully able to perform 3.1 billion calculations per second.

The basis of the discovery and its significance was that Emeagwali had programmed each of the microprocessors to communicate with six neighboring microprocessors at the same time. The success of this record-breaking experiment signified that there was now a practical and reasonable way to use machines like these to speak to each other all over the world. Within a few years, the oil industry had capitalized upon the idea, then called the Hyperball International Network creating a virtual worldwide web of ultrafast digital communication.

The discovery earned him the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers’ Gordon Bell Prize in 1989. It is widely considered the Nobel Prize in computing. Philip Emeagwali was later hailed as one of the fathers of the Internet. Since then, he has received more than 100 prizes for his work, and Apple computer has used his microprocessor technology in the Power Mac G4 model.

“The Internet as we know it today did not cross my mind,” Emeagwali told TIME. “I was hypothesizing a planetary-sized supercomputer and, broadly speaking, my focus was on how the present creates the future and how our image of the future inspires the present.”

Philip Emeagwali has created hundreds more concepts. He has lectured in several symposiums around the world, and been lauded for his achievements. He was named the Pioneer of the Year by the National Society of Black Engineers, as well as Scientist of the Year in 1991, the Computer Scientist of the Year by America’s National Technical Association in 1993 along with dozens of other tributes.

Bill Clinton cited him as an example of what Nigerians can achieve when given the opportunity. He is regularly talked about during Black History Month.

Today he lives in Washington with his wife and son.

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