The Humanity Behind the Invention of the Computer

March 30th, 2012

Can you imagine life minus the computer? It wasn’t that long ago that we didn’t have them, yet today we carry them around inside our pockets in the form of smartphones.

How did our culture go from no computers to having so much access to them in such a small amount of time? George Dyson, a science historian, asks this question in his book, Turing’s Cathedral.

The son of scientist Freeman Dyson, George Dyson spent much of his life at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. The first digital computers were built here with the direction of scientist Josh von Neumann.

After you’ve read Turing’s Cathedral, you will discover just how much chance went into developing the machine that led to the computers we currently take for granted. The personalities at the Princeton Institute didn’t always mesh well, but somehow they were able to create the world’s first digital computer. This machine was assembled and run from an otherwise nondescript building in New Jersey.

Like all great projects, this one featured more than its share of rivalries, fall-outs, and, not surprisingly, salty language. The people behind this project were geniuses. They were not 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 might think that history books are dry reads and a history of computers must be crammed with technical lingo. Turing’s Cathedral doesn’t fit that image at all. Anybody who uses a computer will find this book intriguing. Which is an awful lot of people these days.

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