Can you imagine life minus the computer? It wasn’t that long ago that people didn’t have them, yet today we carry them around in our pockets in the form of smartphones.

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

The son of scientist Freeman Dyson, George Dyson spent a lot of his life at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. The first digital computers were built here under the direction of scientist Josh von Neumann.

Turing’s Cathedral examines the invention of the computer, highlighting the contrasting personalities that were thrown together to work on the project. Additionally, it examines what was involved in the invention of the computer, much of which was chance.

Like all great projects, this one included more than its share of rivalries, fall-outs, and, certainly, salty language. The individuals 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 think that a history of the computer would be a dry read. You may think that it might be filled with impossible-to-understand jargon. Fortunately, Dyson’s history of the computer makes for an interesting read, and you don’t need an advanced degree to understand it. Anybody who uses a computer – and that’s a lot of people today – should pick up a copy of Turing’s Cathedral. You might be surprised at what you learn.


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