Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Hardware with a Human Heart

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Hardware with a Human Heart

Article excerpt

Harold Thimbleby gets to know the people behind the computer in a fascinating but rambling account.

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe By George Dyson Allen Lane

432pp, Pounds 25.00 and Pounds 14.99

ISBN 9780713997507 and 9780718194505

Published 1 March 2012

The story of the computer is fascinating; it underpins everything from Facebook, travel, supermarkets and Twitter to finance, healthcare and the supply of electricity to our homes so that we can read books on well- charged iPads.

Controversy surrounds the earliest days of the technology. Both the UK and the US started developing computers during the Second World War, but the secrecy around such work meant many ideas were not revealed until decades later, by which time "The Story" had already taken shape in the collective consciousness.

George Dyson, a historian of technology who is the son of mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson and theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, has studied the archives intensively. The story begins in a shed near the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where his parents worked and where he played as a child. For him, the shed sparks memories of the earliest computers. It's best to imagine going into this shed, settling into a comfortable chair and asking George to tell us his story, for it is fascinating - and rambling.

John von Neumann is the main character in this book, an extremely clever mathematician who drove the development of the first computer: he arrived at the institute a year after Einstein. That's the simple picture, and today's computers - even your iPad - have von Neumann architecture in his memory.

The bigger picture starts with William Penn drafting a constitution for an American colony in 1676; no, it starts in Hitler's Kristallnacht just before the Second World War; no, it starts with the rush to develop a nuclear weapon and the need to solve lots of hard technical problems with shock waves, a special interest of von Neumann's. In fact, the secret use of the early computer was disguised in weather calculations, yet von Neumann was clear that controlling the weather would be more powerful than controlling the Bomb.

The characters take sides on the moral grounds for working on the Bomb; to some it is obscene to work out how to kill civilians, to others it is a mathematical problem to be solved. …

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