It’s difficult to visualize life without the computer. Today we carry small computers – that’s what smartphones are, after all – in our pockets. Nevertheless, there was a time when the majority of consumers did not have a single computer in their homes.
How did computers develop into such an essential appliance in such a short amount of time? That’s the question that science historian and author George Dyson asks, and answers, in his new book, Turing’s Cathedral, a kind 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, because of 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 with the guidance of scientist Josh von Neumann.
Turing’s Cathedral examines the invention of the computer, emphasizing the contrasting personalities that were thrown together to work on the project. It also examines what was involved in the creation of the computer, much of which was chance.
Like all great projects, this one featured more than its share of rivalries, fall-outs, and, certainly, salty language. The individuals behind this project were geniuses. They weren’t saints. The book also covers the important ethical issues the creators of the computer faced by the close relationship of their computer work to the U.S. nuclear weapons project.
You may have the idea that a history book about computers won’t just be dry but also full of technical jargon. This is not true with Turing’s Cathedral; nearly everybody who use computers will find this book interesting. Which is a lot of people today.
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