It’s hard to visualize life without the computer. Today we carry small computers – that’s what smartphones are, after all – in our pockets. However, there was a time when the greater part of consumers did not have a single computer within their homes.
How did computers turn into such an essential appliance in such a short amount of time? That’s the query that science historian and writer George Dyson asks, and answers, in his new book, Turing’s Cathedral, a sort of personal history of the computer.
Dyson has a unique vantage point that makes him an ideal author for this book. He’s the son of a top scientist, Freeman Dyson and, due to this, has spent a lot of his years at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. The Institute was home to the globe’s most accomplished scientific minds – included Einstein’s – while they were in the midst of building and operating the very first digital computers under the guidance of scientist Josh von Neumann.
After you’ve read Turing’s Cathedral, you’ll discover just how much chance went into creating the machine that led to the computers we currently take for granted. The personalities at the Princeton Institute didn’t often mesh well, but somehow they were able to produce the world’s first digital computer. This machine was built and run from an otherwise nondescript building in New Jersey.
Genius or not, people are still people, and when working tightly on a single project there are certain to be rivalries and disagreements that occur. Turing’s Cathedral lays these matters open, showing the humanity of the scientist that created the first computer.It was not only the personal disputes that needed to be set aside to make this project successful; there were also ethical issues involved. The work that went into the development of the computer walked hand in hand with the U.S. nuclear weapons project.
You might think that history books are dry reads and a history of computers has to be filled with technical jargon. Turing’s Cathedral doesn’t fit that image at all. Anyone who uses a computer will find this book intriguing. Which is an awful lot of people today.