Turing’s Cathedral talks about the cast of characters behind modern computing, particularly the team of people who worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

1) John von Neumann played a massive role in the beginning of computers.

John von Neumann headed the group at the IAS building some of the earliest computers, after having led a team at Los Alamos. Oddly, Von Neumann was such an expert that every group he interacted with thought he was something else: the engineers saw him as a pure mathematician and the pure mathematicians saw him as an engineer.

2) A large number of people building these computers came from eastern Europe, particularly Hungary.

John von Neumann, his wife Klara (one of the first female programmers), theoretical physicist Stanislaw Ulam, and Eugene Wigner were all from Hungary. Several others involved in the Manhattan project, such as Niels Bohr, were from Germany. I wonder what would have happened in science if Europe hadn’t been so unfriendly to Jews.

3) The quest for powerful computers was initially driven by the desire to build the Atom Bomb, followed by the quest to build the Hydrogen bomb.

Doing the calculations to build explosives, and to effectively predict how devastating an explosive will be, are extremely intensive operations. For all of the time and energy that went into building the mechanical computer, it was a great improvement over the rows and columns of human ‘computers’ (largely the wives of the scientists, who otherwise didn’t have much to do) who were doing the calculations by hand.

4) At the IAS, Neumann and his associates were perceived by the pure mathematicians as engineers. The pure mathematicians would not fraternize with them.

Academics has its fair share of classism.

5) Those scientists liked to party.

The book tells many stories of the scientists getting together and throwing parties that lasted late into the evening.

6) Early computers gave off so much heat, tar melted from the roof and gunked up the system.
One of the log books in the IAS reads something like

  • “The machine seems to be producing some tar-like substance that is getting on the cards.”
  • “Tar is tar from roof.”

7) A great deal of early computer theory was laid out by Leibniz in the 1600’s.

Leibniz came up with binary computation, and proposed a simpler, purely mechanical machine to carry out those computations. It’s probably worth reading.

8) There was research into self-replicating machines and genetic algorithms back in the 1950’s.
People didn’t want to talk too much about it because the man running the genetic algorithm simulations was skeptical of Darwinian evoulution.
9) The next big driver of computing at the IAS (after designing bombs) was the need to predict the weather.

This was also heavily driven by military contracts, as the military wanted to make schedule plane flights on sunny days.
10) Neumann, Weiner, Turing, Godel and others all knew each other, or at least read each others work.

Neumann and Godel had offices in the same building at the IAS. Weiner contacted Neumann to discuss the modelling of neurons on computers, and Neumann encouraged the people on his team to read Turing’s paper on universal computing.
11) Early investigators predicted features of the modern internet.

This book was a fairly enjoyable look some of the personalities behind modern computers. I recommend you check it out. A much better and more glowing review of the book can be seen on boing boing.net: https://boingboing.net/2012/03/12/george-dysons-history-of-the.html