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 purses in the form of smartphones.

How did computers become such an important appliance in such a short amount of time? That’s the question 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.

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

If you read Turing’s Cathedral it may surprise you at just how much chance was involved in the creation of the machines that let to computers. The book not only highlights the creation of the computer but also the personalities involved at the Princeton Institute. They weren’t always on the same page but managed to produce the first digital computer nevertheless.

Like all great projects, this one included more than its share of rivalries, fall-outs, and, of course, salty language. The individuals behind this project were geniuses. They were not saints. The book also covers the important moral 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 dull reads and a history of computers has to be filled with technical jargon. Turing’s Cathedral doesn’t fit that image at all. Anyone who uses a computer will find this book interesting. Which is an awful lot of people today.

 

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