What would life be like without a computer? It’s hard to imagine but it wasn’t that long ago that we didn’t have them. Now many of us carry numerous computers, i.e. laptops, e-readers, and smartphones.

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

Dyson, the son of scientist Freeman Dyson, has spent much of his life at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. The institute was home to a few of the world’s most powerful scientific minds while the first digital computer was being developed.

If you read Turing’s Cathedral it may surprise you at just 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 were able to produce the first digital computer regardless.

Like all great projects, this one included more than its share of rivalries, fall-outs, and, not surprisingly, salty language. The people powering this project were geniuses. They weren’t 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 a history of the computer would be a dull read. You may think that it might be packed with impossible-to-understand jargon. Luckily, Dyson’s history of the computer is an interesting read, and you do not need an advanced degree to understand it. Anyone who uses a computer – and that is a lot of people today – should grab a copy of Turing’s Cathedral. You could be surprised at what you learn.

 

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