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Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe

3.58  ·  Rating details ·  4,159 ratings  ·  432 reviews
“It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence,” twenty-four-year-old Alan Turing announced in 1936. In Turing’s Cathedral, George Dyson focuses on a small group of men and women, led by John von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, who built one of the first computers to realize Alan Turing’ ...more
ebook, 505 pages
Published March 6th 2012 by Pantheon (first published January 1st 2012)
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Apr 29, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I loved the history. Dyson’s enthusiasm and love for the subject and scientists comes through loud and clear. It’s rich in detail on researchers with emphasis on John von Neumann.

As for speculation on the future of a living machine, I think the then ninety-one-year-old Edward Teller gave sound advice.
”That seems reasonable,” I agreed. “My own personal theory is that extraterrestrial life could be here already … and how would we necessarily know? If there is life in the universe, the form of l
Jenny Brown
Aug 14, 2012 rated it it was ok
This book is fatally marred by Dyson's failure to understand computer architecture. I note many reviewers assuming that they are confused because they are math phobic. But I was a programmer in the late 1970s and 1980s. I wrote in Assembly language and have read machine language (in hex) when debugging, so when I read Dyson's long passages of gibberish purporting to describe what is going on in a computer I knew they were just plain gibberish.

The stories about the people involved in the project
Knowledge To Kill For

This is not your average paean to the pioneers of the high-tech industry. Who knew, for example, that Turing’s insight had to overcome two centuries of mathematical obsession with Newton’s (but not Leibniz's) infinitesimal calculus? And who knew that the development of the first digital computers was triggered by the military drive to create the hydrogen bomb? And who knew that the victory of binary arithmetic would be ensured by molecular biology? Certainly not me, and I su
Aug 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
I had an issue with this non-fiction, but also a whole lot of love.

So this is about the mathematicians who heralded the whole computer movement. You know, the OTHER, more disreputable and crazy smart people like Von Neumann, Gödel, and all the other nutters like Turing who ushered in the computer age from just a thought experiment into a hand-made lab and later into the co-authors of the nuclear age.

Yeah. THOSE crazy nutters. The ones that ran enough physics programs on their automatic machines
Sep 18, 2012 rated it it was ok
I might have easily given this book four stars if Dyson could have stuck to history instead of indulging himself in inane speculations, and commentaries that are sadly meant to sound profound. The connections he draws between completely unrelated aspects of technology and biology are so strained that whenever I read a particularly grievous one, I'm forced to put the book down and walk around the room until the waves of stupidity subside a bit. For example, at one point Dyson asks us to consider ...more

A fascinating and illuminating book, but also a frustrating one because it should have been a lot better than it is.

The heart of the story is more or less on target – a collection of very interesting anecdotes and narratives about the personalities involved in building America's first computer, at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study after the Second World War. Leading the team was the quite extraordinary figure of John von Neumann, about whom I knew rather little before reading this. He com
Nov 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: those interested in the history of numerical computation
Despite the title, this book is not primarily about Alan Turing. It is really about the group of people at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton. Much of the book focuses on John von Neumann, who spearheaded the effort to build some of the earliest electronic computers. These first computers were very unreliable--incorrect results were as likely due to faulty vacuum tubes as coding errors. In fact, circuits had to be designed to be robust to vacuum tubes that did not follow specs.

If you are looking for information about Alan Turing, look elsewhere. The title is a metaphor.

The Nazis did the U.S. a huge favor with their boorish and stupid racial policies. Many prominent Jews were brilliant mathematicians and physicists, and when the “cleansing” of universities began by the Nazis, people like Van Neumann, Einstein, and many others fled to the United States where they were of immense assistance in the development of the atomic bomb.

This book is about the origins and developm
May 27, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: retro-computing
This book covers essentially the same material as William Aspray's 1990 John von Neumann and the Origin of Modern Computing, the life and times of John von Neumann and the IAS computer. Aspray's book is much more to the point, though, while Dyson's takes large detours into the history of the atomic and hydrogen bomb, World War II cryptography and the like - all these topics have better books dedicated to them. George Dyson has a personal connection to the Institute of Advanced Study because his ...more
Peter Tillman
An interesting and discursive early history of the electronic digital computer, around and after WW2, with a history of the Princeton NJ area back to colonial days, and the history of the founding of the Institute for Advanced Study there. The local history stuff you can safely skim or skip, the IAS stuff is also peripheral (but interesting). But when Dyson gets to John von Neumann's biography (chapter 4), the pace picks up, and picks up even more when he gets to the computer history. Von Neuman ...more
Mar 06, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This book is almost a biography of John von Neumann, almost a history of the MANIAC computer, almost the story of the beginning of the Computer Science field. All of these topics are connected but it's edited in such a way that it seems like 3 different books collided and were glued together with a lot of unnecessary detours. And that is a real shame, there is a lot of good info in here.

I can still recommend this book to other people, but I will have to warn them of these frustrations.
Aug 20, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-read-2017
Three quarters of a century ago a small number of men and women gathered in Princeton, New Jersey. Under the direction of John von Neumann they were to begin building one of the world’s first computers driven by the vison that Alan Turing had of a Universal machine. Using cutting edge technology, valves and vacuum tubes to store the data, the first computer was born. This unit took 19.5kW to work and had a memory size of five, yes five kilobytes. It caused a number of revolutions, it was this ma ...more
Sep 05, 2012 rated it did not like it
This book started off rather confusingly--without a clear description of what it was to be about. It did not improve. For some reaosn,the author thought it very important to tell how Princeton was founded and had a lengthy chapter on William Penn from the 1600s. I thought it might be the format--I was reading on Kindle, and entertained the idea of getting the hard copy to flip through irrelevant sections. I then checked reviews and decided to give it a pass all together. Other folks have found i ...more
Thore Husfeldt
The history of the universal electronic computer at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, pioneered by the leading genius of his time, John von Neumann, and driven largely by the computational requirements of building a nuclear bomb, makes for a good book. George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral is not that book.

At his best, Dyson writes compelling, erudite, witty, and idiosyncratic prose with a gift for poetic analogies and elegant turns of phrase. The opening of chapter XVII, on the vast c
Bryan Alexander
Jul 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
I'm fascinating by the history of computing. There are so many delights there, both geeky and otherwise: glimpses of our present, odd characters, brilliant technical solutions, politics. Turing's Cathedral is a delightful and useful contribution to this field.

George Dyson's book takes place during the 1940s and 1950s, focusing on the extraordinary collection of geniuses in Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, and who created a huge amount of modern computing. A large part of Turing's Cathed
Jul 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
Mixed feelings. On the one hand, Dyson digs up all sorts of quotable lines and anecdotes and biographical details, many genuinely new to me. I enjoyed those greatly. For these I give it 4 stars. On the other hand...

He is obsessed with Von Neumann's IAS/MANIAC, to the detriment of the rest of the book. The pre-WWII history is OK but signally fails to explain things like the Hilbert program, Goedel or Turing's actual halting theorem. Someone who read this expecting to understand 'Turing's cathedra
Mar 29, 2013 rated it liked it
The title is a little misleading. This book is mostly a biography of John von Neumann and concurrently, a story of the early decades of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. The stories are well researched and rich in detail, but at times hard to follow. I think this comes from abrupt changes in the timeline within related chapters. What comes across clearly is the value of interdisciplinary collaboration among genius level scientists and engineers in the presence of new electronic tool ...more
Dec 11, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: The digitally initiated
Recommended to Alan by: Title and topic
Turing's Cathedral is a long, enthusiastic and articulate ramble throughout the early history of computing, a solid work constructed over a great deal of time by a keen observer who has an insider's perspective on many of that history's most pivotal moments. George Dyson is the son of the famous physicist Freeman Dyson, and as a child he must have met many of the principals of this story while they were working at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey (although at the t ...more
Mar 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013-reads, audio
Though I would never dare to participate in anything but a cursory, general conversation about Turing machines or Gödel's theorem or the Monte Carlo method, I just love histories of science and this book made me happy. I listened to the audio version, and often arcane concepts requiring visualization or anything involving equations would blow past me, but all the wonderful details and biographies and momentum more than made up for my muddled moments. I love that it started with a disorienting-or ...more
John Behle
Mar 03, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: communicators
Recommended to John by: library staff
In several reviews, this book has been called a nerd's labor of love. Okay, but it is also exceptionally well written. The sentences are crafted to keep pulling one in to the action. This is not a direct timeline book, though. Dyson introduces the players as they enter the drama of advancing computing.

It is not bog down with old techno speak and specifications. Dyson sprinkles in the interesting facts just as needed. The massive 30 ton computers of the late 1940s did have over 17,000 vacuum tub
Tom Lee
Dec 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
I keep this photo over my desk at work. I think it looks a bit like a microscopic close-up of a drop of milk, or maybe a bacterial colony. In fact it's a shot of the Trinity Test, the planet's first atomic detonation. To me, this event and the context surrounding it are the most fascinating and amazing chapter in all of human engineering: in a panicked fight against evil, a collection of human intelligence was assembled that, through sheer intellectual might, wielded abstract mathematics and app ...more
Mar 23, 2013 rated it liked it
I enjoyed reading this, and learned several new things while doing so. The book is not at all about Alan Turing. If it is a biography of anybody, it is John von Neuman; but really it is about many people, centered around the IAS in Princeton, who played a role in early computer development. There is also a lot of discussion about the development of nuclear and thermo-nuclear weapons, as one of the first applications of electronic computing.

Two big downsides prevent me from rating this book high
Brendan Dolan-Gavitt
The IAS MANIAC project was indeed a truly revolutionary computing endeavor, and it deserves a well-written history. Unfortunately, you will not find it here. Dyson doesn't seem to understand most of the technical issues he tries to describe, and he often resorts to vague attempts at seemingly profound statements (see the end of almost every chapter for examples). Dyson is at his best when he describes the personalities of those who contributed to the project, but this doesn't really save the wor ...more
Mar 06, 2012 rated it liked it
Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson

"Turing's Cathedral" is the uninspiring and rather dry book about the origins of the digital universe. With a title like, "Turing's Cathedral" I was expecting a riveting account about the heroic acts of Alan Turing the father of modern computer science and whose work was instrumental in breaking the wartime Enigma codes. Instead, I get a solid albeit "research-feeling" book about John von Neumann's project to construct Turing
John Gribbin
Aug 23, 2013 rated it really liked it

The title of George Dyson’s latest book about the scientists who worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton during its glory days is a little misleading; the story is not so much about Alan Turing, the man who came up with the idea of the modern computer, but John von Neumann, who did more than anyone else to make it a practical reality. No matter; like Dyson’s previous books, thus is a glorious insight into how science -- in this case, computer science -- was done at Princeton in t
Will Ansbacher
Nov 25, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history, oh-god, science
This is such a maddening book! Is it history? Is it biography? Is it science? Is it speculation? Well, that would be yes, yes, no and yes.

It’s not quite what I was expecting as it has little to say about Turing and his theories or the Colossus machine he is known for (although that’s my fault for not reading the blurbs). Rather it’s about the subsequent computer revolution that developed from it after WW2, and the ENIAC computer in particular.

But this book is not only about the mathematicians an
Raghu Chilukuri
Mar 29, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I have no idea why people claim this book is so bad. I agree the narration is non-linear, and possibly confusing, but it doesn't deserve all this flak.

I'm not sure if these ranting people understand the concept of non-linear story-telling. There are people who said "I'm not so technical, but..." and some are ready to burn the book for not explaining von Neumann architecture in detail. I remember the book mentioning the ability to store code and data in the same place (address space) -- I'm not s
Mar 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, technology
This is a tour de force history of the birth of the modern computer - and, specifically, the role of Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study in it - their "IAS machine" was a widely copied design, forming the basis for many research computers and IBM's early 701 model.We hear of John von Neumann (who tragically died of cancer at 53), Alan Turing (stripped of his security clearing and probably driven to suicide at 41), Stan Ulam, and many others, some famous, some (quite undeservedly) less so. I ...more
May 24, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ultimately, this is a very good book. The only thing keeping it from being a great book is the author's almost messianic fascination with the role cellular automata and its ilk played in the digital computing revolution, and the role the results of that revolution is playing in society.

I realize this might seem counterintuitive, but the religiosity that comes through in Dyson's meandering ruminations on the ramifications of the history he is recounting do not, in my opinion anyway, actually lend
May 23, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Brian
I listened to this on audiodisc and it was well done. However, the book has wonderful pictures and if you do listen, I recommend getting a copy of the book for the pictures.

This is the story of the making of the first computers. It is the story of the ideas, the machine, the math, the physics, the engineering, the people, the politics, and the physical and social environment. There were sections of the book that were over my head, but that was okay. In a page or two there would be a beautiful di
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George Dyson is a scientific historian, the son of Freeman Dyson, brother of Esther Dyson, and the grandson of Sir George Dyson. When he was sixteen he went to live in British Columbia in Canada to pursue his interest in kayaking and escape his father's shadow. While there he lived in a treehouse at a height of 30 metres. He is the author of Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957-1965 and Darwin ...more

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