George Dyson's history of the computer: Turing's Cathedral

Science historian and perennial Boing Boing favorite George Dyson's latest book is Turing's Cathedral, and it is, in some sense, the book he was born (or at least raised) to write. Dyson, the son of eminent scientist Freeman Dyson, was brought up on the grounds of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies during the period when the Institute's cadre of scientists (who included Einstein and Godel) were in the midst of building and operating the first digital computers, under the direction of John von Neumann. George Dyson grew up among these scientists and their children, and witnessed much of this historic period firsthand. He has made a distinguished career out of documenting the remarkable imaginations and scientific acumen of the physicists, rocket scientists, mathematicians, polymaths and engineers who were involved in the R&D swirl that birthed rocketry, computing, radar, weather prediction, and nuclear weapons.

With Turing's Cathedral, Dyson combines his prodigious skills as a historian and writer with his privileged position within the Institute's history to present a vivid account of the digital computer project and the curious circumstances -- the World Wars, the curious nature of the multidisciplinary Princeton Institute, and the odd personalities of the people involved -- that combined to make the computer described by Turing into a reality that could be assembled and run in a building in New Jersey.

Dyson unravels the personal histories of the great personalities of the project, from household names like Turing and von Neumann and Godel to the largely unsung contributions of the likes of Julian Bigelow, Oswald Veblen, Klari von Neumann and Stan Ulam. Working from memoirs and memoranda and the terse and sometimes profane notes from the computers' logbooks, he paints a picture of the human strengths and foibles and the rivalries that sometimes spurred the project to greater heights, and sometimes held it back. He gives us an Institute riven by prejudice between the humanities and math people, and then the pure and applied math people, and then shows how these problems are dwarfed by the ethical issues raised by the intimate relationship of the computer project to the nuclear weapons project.

Reading Turing's Cathedral, I was never far from the sense that the computer was both the unique product of certain specific geniuses and the collective effort of dozens of people, some of whom violently disliked and disagreed with one other. Turing's Cathedral is a story of sparks arising from friction, and of the ways that too much friction could extinguish sparks, too, wasting human potential. It is also a powerful story of the ethical dimension of scientific research, a story whose lessons apply as much today in an era of expanded military R&D as they did in the ENIAC and MANIAC era.

Like The Information, James Gleick's history of information theory, Turing's Cathedral contains a good many technical concepts that arose from the development of the computer, from "incompleteness" to artificial intelligence. Dyson's technical explanations are less forgiving than Gleick's, and are also less central to the narrative. On the other hand, Dyson closes the book with three absolutely, hair-on-neck-standing-up inspiring chapters on the present and future, a bracing reminder of the distance we have come on some of the paths envisioned by von Neumann, Turing, et al (see this for a bit of a preview).

If I have one complaint about this book, it's that there isn't enough of Dyson, personally in it. I've heard him talk about this stuff before, and his own personal recollections are lively and do much to humanize the subjects. But if you've followed Dyson's work on space travel, the history of nuclear weapons, and even his science fiction, you already know that.

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe



  1. Another book along the lines of the origin of the computer that I enjoyed was Jacquard’s Web, how the invention of a punch cards to control Jacquard looms directly inspired Babbage and his Difference and Analytical engines, as well as Jacquard inspiring the census punch card machines that would eventually become IBM.

  2. I have also heard Dyson’s talk on the subject of this book and agree with Cory’s comments. After hearing it I regretted not taking notes as there were many stories I wanted to remember and learn more about. Now I just have to get the book.

  3. If you enjoy “Turing’s Cathedral”, then I would also recommend Paul Edwards “A Vast Machine” about the development of weather prediction and climate modeling; which runs a parallel and overlapping course with the development of the digital computer. Von Neumann and ENIAC play a starring role, but the bigger story is one of how we deal with large quantities of data, and especially how we make sure that data is collected in a consistent manner.

  4. … and I thought rocketry and in parts nuclear weapons were developed by Nazi scientist snatched up by the US government after the war (e.g. Werner von Braun)

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