What would existence be like without a computer? It’s hard to imagine but it wasn’t that long ago that people didn’t have them. Now most people carry multiple computers, i.e. laptops, e-readers, and smartphones.

How did computers become such an important appliance in such a short amount of time? That’s the query that science historian and writer George Dyson asks, and answers, in his new book, Turing’s Cathedral, a kind of personal history of the pc.

The son of scientist Freeman Dyson, George Dyson spent much of his life at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. The very first digital computers were built here with the assistance of scientist Josh von Neumann.

After you’ve read Turing’s Cathedral, you will discover just how much chance went into developing the machine that brought about the computers we now take for granted. The personalities at the Princeton Institute didn’t often mesh well, but somehow they were able to produce the world’s first digital computer. This machine was built and run from an otherwise nondescript building in New Jersey.

Like all great projects, this one featured more than its share of rivalries, fall-outs, and, not surprisingly, salty language. The people behind this project were geniuses. They were not 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 may have the idea that a history book about computers won’t just be dry but also full of technical jargon. This is not the case with Turing’s Cathedral; nearly everybody who use computers will find this book fascinating. Which is a lot of people these days.

 

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