The Bomb and the Byte
By Sandro Tkeshelashvili
On July 16th, 1945, a flash brighter than the sun itself enveloped the Trinity test site, marking the world’s first successful test of the nuclear bomb. Miles away and years later, a much dimmer light smouldered in a basement in Pennsylvania, the glow of the myriad vacuum tubes that made up EDVAC, the world’s first computer. While certainly not as bombastic of an invention, the computer would arguably go on to have an even greater effect upon humanity. In Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, George Dyson explores the creation of the first proper computer. Rather than relying on musty reams of facts and figures, Dyson weaves a rich, interconnected tale of the men and women involved, his father among them. It is this mix of recollection and retelling that gives the book a distinct character. This is not only the story of the computer, but the people who made it, the place that it was assembled, and the times that created the need for it.
Though Turing’s name may be on the jacket, the book primarily follows John Von Neumann, a Hungarian mathematician, and others at the Institute for Advanced Study as they race to become the first to build a programmable computer: a Turing machine. During wartime, something was desperately needed for problems that were simply not feasible to solve manually, like break complex codes or model nuclear blasts. The answer of course, was the computer. However, it is not strictly the hardware of EDVAC, as the machine came to be called, that set it apart; it was the first computer capable of supporting programs (software) as we know it. Eventually, Neumann and his team pulled ahead, largely thanks to the fact that they had discovered a way to build a reliable machine from unreliable components, allowing them to using off the shelf parts rather than more expensive and intricate custom ones. These material obstacles surmounted, work on what was to become EDVAC began in earnest in 1946. More and more people began to be attracted to the project, engineers, mathematicians, scientists, and myriad others. In fact, so many came that houses had to be bought whole and shipped over rail to IAS’s Princeton campus to house everyone, and the equivalent of a small town sprung up almost overnight. From there, the narrative settles into a steady rhythm, now focusing on the evolution of EDVAC and the spread of its design to other universities and research institutions.
As the pages go by, the urgency and energy of the first part of the book diminishes and even disappears, as EDVAC has gone from a singular achievement to merely one of many. From time to time, Dyson provides excerpts from its log, and one on July 15, 1958 marks its death knell; made obsolete by its own progeny, it is laid to rest with one last log entry made: “Off-12 Midnight-JHB”. With EDVAC and many scientists behind it expired, the narrative thread of the creation of the computer is exhausted, and Dyson shifts to writing about the mythos and legacy that has built up around them. In this, he is never quite bound by chronological order or topic, and bits of past, future, and present all occasionally intermingle, just as he mixes speaking about analog nature and digital computing. We are taken to the modern era, and even beyond, as the consequences of having machines to think for us are laid out. Interestingly, in the conclusions drawn, computers themselves are portrayed as morally grey. During the first part of the book there are frequent visits from the military to appropriate recent advances for arms, and the same men puzzling out programming were also in some cases attempting to crack the secret of the hydrogen bomb. Later on, Dyson examines the influence that computers have had since. Throughout, he uses the computer and its evolution as a lens to view the turbulent times of its conception: offering glimpses of after-work parties, rivalries, and friendships, even the conflict between military and academia. Due to this, and a strict commitment to keep things understandable to the layman, Dyson turns a technical tale into an accessible, engaging narrative that offers much more than a plain description of what went into the creation of the now ubiquitous computer. That said, it is still best approached by those interested in the underlying topic, as the entire book is very much about early computing and programming, and to some extent, the interplay between humanity and their creation, both then, now, and future.