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George Dyson’s “Turing’s Cathedral”

Douglas Adams once famously observed:

“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

When John von Neumann and his team invented the first stored program computer, MANIAC, and successfully ran it in March 1952, my birth was some 24 years and seven months in the future. Stored program computers — like telephones, television, and running water — were just “a natural part of the way the world works.” No biggie. It is very easy to forget that the systems we have today didn’t descend fully made from the heavens, and it’s also easy to take these large evolutionary steps for granted too. I feel that our ability to understand a complex, human made, system — like a computer — is greatly increased when we can develop a context for it: what were the people who made this thing trying to accomplish? How did they choose this particular solution? Were there other ways of doing it, and this one won out? Another word for this “context” is simply History. So, in reading Dyson’s book, I’d hope to increase my contextual knowledge of this massive step in the evolution of the computer and information theory.

What is a stored program computer? A stored program computer is a device for which the data AND the instructions that operate on that data are stored and manipulated in the same medium. Before stored program computers, machines had to be completely reconfigured in hardware to do other tasks: there was no software, just hardware. So, machines like ENIAC needed a great deal of downtime if you wanted to execute some other application. By storing the data AND the instructions in the same place with the same stuff — basically as electric charge in RAM — you suddenly had machines that could write and execute their own new instructions based on a beginning state. You suddenly had software. You suddenly had a general computer that could attack however many tasks your code could dream up. And, as we’ve seen, software is actually what makes computing devices amazing and powerful. The “killer app” is what makes you a ton of money, and not the “killer machine”. There is only a very small pool of people who know what a general purpose, stored program computer is capable of and how to take advantage of it; for the rest of us, such a machine is totally worthless without software to run on it.

Dyson’s book starts with the creation of the Institute for Advance Study (IAS) at Princeton and provides a biopic of all the players, as the team brought MANIAC into being. There a lot about John von Neumann, of course, but also other members of the team who made the thing possible, like Julian Bigelow who actually solved the physical engineering problems on the project. The technical nitty-gritty is absent, but I think that Dyson, like Jason Scott in “BBS: the Documentary”, is trying to give us the faces of this period. Who were these people? What were they like? What were they trying to accomplish? I would have enjoyed more of the tech details, but it was still a good read, and I could recommend it to anyone interested in the subject, even if they don’t have a strong tech background. You don’t have to be an engineer to enjoy this one.

If your interest is piqued, but don’t have the time to read the book, here’s a 17 minute lecture from Dyson that sums up the contents of the book nicely.



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