Book review: Turing’s Cathedral

Given the ubiquitous nature of computers in modern life, you’d think that a book about the historical development of the things might make for fascinating reading.

Turing’s Cathedral is subtitled “The Origins Of The Digital Universe”, which is just a fancy way of saying it’s about how computers got invented, and while there are moments of passing interest within its pages, it all seems a little too niche and small scale to really find much of a readership beyond nerds interested in the history of bits and bytes.

Dyson’s last book, Darwin Among The Machines, was an expansive, sometimes ground-breaking tome about the potential interaction between humankind, nature and machines. Wide in scope and genuinely insightful, it rightly garnered a lot of praise.

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In comparison, Turing’s Cathedral seems rather narrow in its focus, with the effect that the material feels rather stretched over the length of an entire book.

Dyson’s main subject area is the development of the world’s first digital computers in the 1940s. The venue for this work was the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, and the driving force behind the development was the leading mathematician of his generation, John von Neumann.

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At the IAS, von Neumann threw together a crack team of maths wizards with some of the world’s finest engineers in an attempt to make real the theoretical “universal machine” postulated by Alan Turing in the 1930s.

Von Neumann and his team were heavily funded by American government and military establishments, and the main purpose of this new calculating machine was to attempt accurate predictions for the possible effects of a hydrogen bomb. In actual fact, much of the work carried out at the IAS had militaristic applications, alongside occasionally more benign calculations on subjects as diverse as genetics and meteorology.

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Dyson does a good enough job of painting what the atmosphere must have been like in such a hotbed of mathematical innovation, but there are too many banal details and odd tangents within the story.

The transition in the boffins’ communal mindset from numbers that mean things to numbers that do things – ie, from the theoretical to the practical – was essential for the development of the first computers. Those machines were made from rows of vacuum tubes buzzing away, and the image of such a cumbersome contraption lumped in the middle of a seat of previously esoteric learning is an amusing one.

But there’s just not enough drama to this story to really hook you. As if he realises this, Dyson strays off into very different territory at times, even revisiting the potential for digital evolution he touched on in Darwin Among The Machines.

In the end, it’s unclear what the focus of Turing’s Cathedral really is. It neither satisfies as a straight scientific history nor as an espousal of theoretical ideas, rather it seems like something of a muddled mix of the two.

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• Turing’s Cathedral

George Dyson

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Allen Lane, £25