As the U.S. was immersed in WW II, there was an urgent need for computing power. Engineers were busy building computers using electro-static storage tubes and vacuum-tube technology, equivalent to modern silicon memory chips. Suddenly the effort involved for a human to calculate ammunition trajectories could be done within minutes, instead of hundreds of hours.
These hand-built, room-size, machines also fostered next-generation nuclear weapons, and led to development of the Internet, the microprocessor and multiple-warhead ICBMs. Soon, the ENIAC computer, occupying a 33 by 55 foot room, built with 500,000 hand-soldered joints, had the power of twenty human processors, and remained in use until 1955.
The work of John Von Neumann and Alan Turing gave birth to software and established principles that would guide the future of computers.
As Alan Turing enters the story, he says goodbye to his family and sails in steerage from London to New York in 1936, heading for Princeton to work with Von Neumann. He carried with him a heavy brass sextant and soon after arrival delivered his 35-page paper, “On Computable Numbers,” said to symbolize the powers of digital machines. The men worked together for two years while Turing completed a fellowship. His paper described a Universal Machine, able to compute any computable number.
Turing’s Cathedral should be required reading for today’s techies, who will delight in every new development along the way, including a high-speed wire drive, coiled via bicycle wheels, running at 90,000 bits per second. A memorable forerunner to the tape cartridges and removable drives that came along in the late 20th century, indeed. As we know today, technology also brought about the ability to conduct computer-assisted weather forecasting, Monte Carlo simulation statistics, and grew exponentially to include many thousands of innovations.
The history of computers and statistics is part of the history of the U.S., WW II, immigration, university life, weather, Los Alamos, and beautiful story telling. Through a well-told story and rare photos, Dyson’s book is both a history lesson and a tribute to the pioneers of technology who changed the world.