…a groundbreaking history of the Princeton computer. Though the English mathematician Alan Turing gets title billing, Dyson's true protagonist is the Hungarian-American John von Neumann, presented here as the Steve Jobs of early computersa man who invented almost nothing, yet whose vision changed the world…Turing's Cathedral, incorporating original research and reporting…is an expansive narrative wherein every character, place and idea rates a digression…The book brims with unexpected detail.
The New York Times Book Review
An overstuffed meditation on all things digital sprouts from this engrossing study of how engineers at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, under charismatic mathematician John von Neumann (the book should really be titled Von Neumann’s Cathedral), built a pioneering computer (called MANIAC) in the years after WWII. To readers used to thinking of computers as magical black boxes, historian Dyson (Darwin Among the Machines) gives an arresting view of old-school mechanics hammering the first ones together from vacuum tubes, bicycle wheels, and punch-cards. Unfortunately, his account of technological innovations is too sketchy for laypeople to quite follow. The narrative frames a meandering tour of the breakthroughs enabled by early computers, from hydrogen bombs to weather forecasting, and grandiose musings on the digital worldview of MANIAC’s creators, in which the author loosely connects the Internet, DNA, and the possibility of extraterrestrial invasion via interstellar radio signals. Dyson’s portrait of the subculture of Von Neumann and other European émigré scientists who midwifed America’s postwar technological order is lively and piquant. But the book bites off more science than it can chew, and its expositions of hard-to-digest concepts from Gödel’s theorem to the Turing machine are too hasty and undeveloped to sink in. (Mar.)
“The best book I’ve read on the origins of the computer. . . not only learned, but brilliantly and surprisingly idiosyncratic and strange.”
—The Boston Globe
“A groundbreaking history . . . the book brims with unexpected detail.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“A technical, philosophical and sometimes personal account . . . wide-ranging and lyrical.”
“The story of the [von Neumann] computer project and how it begat today’s digital universe has been told before, but no one has told it with such precision and narrative sweep.”
—The New York Review of Books
“A fascinating combination of the technical and human stories behind the computing breakthroughs of the 1940s and ‘50s. . . . An important work.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Vivid. . . . [A] detailed yet readable chronicle of the birth of modern computing. . . . Dyson’s book is one small step toward reminding us that behind all the touch screens, artificial intelligences and cerebellum implants lies not sorcery but a machine from the middle of New Jersey.”
“Well-told. . . . Dyson tells his story as a sort of intellectual caper film. He gathers his cast of characters . . . and tracks their journey to Princeton. When they converge, it’s great fun, despite postwar food rationing and housing shortages. . . . Dyson is rightly as concerned with the machine’s inventors as with the technology itself."
—The Wall Street Journal
“Charming. . . . Creation stories are always worth telling, especially when they center on the birth of world-changing powers. . . . Dyson creatively recounts the curious Faustian bargain that permitted mathematicians to experiment with building more powerful computers, which in turn helped others build more destructive bombs.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“The story of the invention of computers has been told many times, from many different points of view, but seldom as authoritatively and with as much detail as George Dyson has done. . . . Turing’s Cathedral will enthrall computer enthusiasts. . . . Employing letters, memoirs, oral histories and personal interviews, Dyson organizes his book around the personalities of the men (and occasional woman) behind the computer, and does a splendid job in bringing them to life.”
—The Seattle Times
“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 . . . 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.”
—Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing
“No other book about the beginnings of the digital age . . . makes the connections this one does between the lessons of the computer’s origin and the possible paths of its future.”
“If you want to be mentally prepared for the next revolution in computing, Dyson’s book is a must read. But it is also a must read if you just want a ripping yarn about the way real scientists (at least, some real scientists) work and think.”
“More than just a great book about science. It’s a great book, period.”
—The Globe and Mail
In the 1940s and 1950s, scientists at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, worked to realize Alan Turing's dream of a universal machine, which led to computers, digital television, modern genetics, and more. Because their work was funded by the government, which therefore expected to benefit from the results, it also led to the creation of the hydrogen bomb. Distinguished science writer Dyson is the son of renowned physicist Freeman Dyson, who worked at the institute in the 1950s, so you can expect an insightful book. With an eight-city tour.
That we live in a digital universe is indisputable; how we got there is a mesmerizing tale brilliantly told by science historian Dyson (Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957–1965, 2002, etc.) The author establishes late 1945 as the birth date of the first stored-program machine, built at the Institute for Advanced Study, established in Princeton in 1932 as a haven for theoreticians. It happened under the watch of the brilliant mathematician John von Neumann, fresh from commutes to Los Alamos where the atom bomb had been built and the hydrogen bomb only a gleam in Edward Teller's eye. Dyson makes clear that the motivation for some of the world's greatest technological advances has always been to perfect instruments of war. Indeed, von Neumann's colleagues included some who had been at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where a dedicated-purpose computer, ENIAC, had been built to calculate firing tables for antiaircraft artillery. The IAS computer, MANIAC, was used to determine the parameters governing the fission of an atom device inside an H-bomb that would then ignite the fusion reaction. But for von Neumann and others, the MANIAC was also the embodiment of Alan Turing's universal machine, an abstract invention in the '30s by the mathematician who would go on to crack the Nazi's infamous Enigma code in World War II. In addition to these stories, Dyson discusses climate and genetic-modeling projects programmed on the MANIAC. The use of wonderful quotes and pithy sketches of the brilliant cast of characters further enriches the text. Who knew that eccentric mathematician-logician Kurt Gödel had married a Viennese cabaret dancer? Meticulously researched and packed with not just technological details, but sociopolitical and cultural details as well--the definitive history of the computer.