It’s difficult to imagine life without the computer. Today we carry tiny computers – that’s what smartphones are, after all – in our pockets. Nevertheless, there was a time when the greater part of consumers didn’t have a single computer within their homes.
How did computers develop into such an important appliance in such a short amount of time? This is 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, the son of scientist Freeman Dyson, has spent a great deal of his life at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. The institute was home to a few of the world’s most impressive scientific minds while the first digital computer was being created.
Turing’s Cathedral explores the invention of the computer, emphasizing the clashing personalities that were thrown together to work on the project. Additionally, it explores what was involved in the creation of the computer, much of which was chance.
Genius or not, people are still people, and when working closely on the same project there are bound to be rivalries and disagreements that arise. Turing’s Cathedral lays these things open, showing the humanity of the scientist that created the first computer.It wasn’t just the personal disputes that needed to be set aside to make this project prosperous; 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 may think that a history of the computer would be a dull read. You may think that it’d be loaded with impossible-to-understand jargon. Luckily, Dyson’s history of the computer makes for an interesting read, and you do not need an advanced degree to comprehend it. Anyone who uses a computer – and that’s an awful lot of people today – should purchase a copy of Turing’s Cathedral. You might be surprised at what you learn.