It’s hard to imagine life without the computer. Today we carry small computers – that’s what smartphones are, after all – in our pockets. Nevertheless, there was a time when the majority of consumers did not have a single computer in their homes.

George Dyson, a science historian, asks how we went from having no computers to having so many in such a brief time period in his book, Turing’s Cathedral.

Dyson has a unique vantage point that makes him the ideal author for this book. He’s the son of a top scientist, Freeman Dyson and, because of this, has spent much of his years at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. The Institute was home to the globe’s most gifted scientific minds – included Einstein’s – while they were in the middle of building and operating the first digital computers with the direction of scientist Josh von Neumann.

If you read Turing’s Cathedral it will surprise you at how much chance was involved in the development of the machines that let to computers. The book not only highlights the development 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 regardless.

Like all great projects, this one featured more than its share of rivalries, fall-outs, and, certainly, 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 a history of the computer will be a dull read. You may think that it’d be filled with impossible-to-understand jargon. Thankfully, Dyson’s history of the computer is a fascinating read, and you do not need an advanced degree to understand it. Anybody who uses a computer – and that’s an awful lot of people today – should grab a copy of Turing’s Cathedral. You could be astonished at what you learn.

 

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