Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology and George Mason University yesterday announced a unique $600,000 cooperative venture designed to give small and medium-sized businesses access to the powerful but costly supercomputer.

A partnership made up of Boeing Computer Services, CIT and GMU will invite about 40,000 firms nationwide to participate in a series of lectures and workshops to learn about the use of supercomputers, in a program designed to enhance Virginia's image as a state on the leading edge of technology.

Supercomputers, which can perform hundreds of millions of calculations a second, can quickly perform complex design tasks and simulations that mainframe computers take hours to do.

Ultimately, about five to seven firms -- probably in research and development or engineering -- will be awarded free access to Boeing's supercomputer to develop a computer-intensive project that would be difficult to do even with the most massive of mainframe computers.

The joint venture represents the first time that a private corporation is making its supercomputer available to smaller firms. Up to now, the 100 supercomputers in use have been utilized primarily by the government, major universities and the nation's top 100 corporations, including auto manufacturers, major aerospace firms and oil companies.

The expense of the machines -- about $17 million -- has kept them out of the hands of small and medium-sized firms. The White House has urged all institutions to open up their supercomputers to other concerns in an attempt to broaden access.

Boeing's supercomputer, which handles about 400 million operations a second, can operate about 20 times faster than the best number-crunching mainframe computers. For instance, Boeing officials noted that a company building an oil rig recently used a supercomputer to complete in 26 minutes a structural design program that would have taken 28 hours on a large mainframe -- albeit at about a quarter of the cost of using a supercomputer.

"Supercomputing must not become the exclusive domain of those organizations large enough to afford a supercomputer," said Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb in a statement announcing the joint venture. "This effort, a partnership of public institutions and private industry, challenges smaller businesses to tackle big problems using supercomputer technology."

Under the joint venture, Boeing Computer Services, a subsidiary of the Boeing Co., will provide $250,000 worth of time on its Cray X-MP/24 supercomputer located in Seattle. Access will be provided via telephone lines. CIT will provide another $250,000 worth of time and the National Science Foundation will furnish a $40,000 grant. The remaining $60,000 will come from GMU, which has set up a new Center for Supercomputer Applications to provide technical assistance and personnel for the project. Time on the supercomputer costs about $2,000 an hour.

Under the venture, invitations will be sent to about 40,000 firms nationwide asking them to participate in a series of meetings, in Fairfax or at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, to learn about potential supercomputer uses.

Early next year, a laboratory workshop will be held to address problems that could be solved by the supercomputer technology. After the workshops, participants will be asked to submit specific proposals to use the Boeing supercomputer.