I recently read “Turing’s Cathedral” by George Dyson. The book presents the history of the computer at the Institute for Advanced Study, interwoven with the stories of the different people involved in both the founding of the Institute as well as the history of computing itself. I found the book very enjoyable; more technical than some average pop sci book, but high enough level that I could skip over some technical details and still get the gist of things. In particular I was struck by how closely entwined the history of the computer was with the building of the atomic and hydrogen bombs. I had always had a sort of general feeling about the correlation of the invention of the computer and war, but it was always on the level of “Oh, Turing used it to crack codes!”. There wasn’t that explicit direct link between the computer and atomic fire. The book describes how all of the early computers in the US were explicitly military and primarily used for bomb calculations - from ENIAC on to the IAS machine, and then the commercial IBM machines that came after that. The book does touch on some scientific application, but that seemed to only emphasize the military origin more. For example, some weather researchers got to use the machine one hour a day in the middle of the night, when the bomb calculations had completed for the day.
The other thing I really enjoyed in this book was learning more about Von Neumann’s life. I’ve always been interested in Von Neumann due to his famous intelligence, his broad contributions across so many topics, and his sense of duty and dedication to his adopted country. The book gives a detailed biography of the man, and is fairly even handed in both its praise and its criticism. One alleged flaw I had not been aware of was how Von Neumann published the technical details of the computer designs, denying the patent rights to the designers of ENIAC and later on similarly to his own engineering team at IAS, despite gaining lucrative consulting fees for himself at IBM. Despite this, I came away from the book even more impressed with him than I had been before. Von Neumann essentially stopped focusing on pure mathematics at the end of the Manhattan Project, besides the occasional recreational pursuit, in order to focus on what had to be done to survive the Cold War. He correctly foresaw the importance of developing the hydrogen bomb, whereas others - e.g. Oppenheimer - had either been naive about Soviet intentions or the US’s capabilities. This was also true for the development of the ICBM, which Von Neumann also helped gain political backing for. It is sobering to think of a world where the US had only begun hydrogen bomb and ICBM research after the Soviets had capability in both. The Great Man Theory of History may not be universally applicable but I do believe that Von Neumann saved us from a much darker path.
Underneath this military reality is the sense of tragedy, of what could of been. Both Von Neumann and the IAS were derailed by the political realities of the time. His tragic death prevented us from seeing what he could have contributed to biology, and the war prevented us from seeing what else he could have contributed to pure mathematics. This is compounded by the other, also tragic, death of Turing, and of lead computer engineer Julian Bigelow’s ostracization from IAS by the jealous academics there. At the same time, that war was the crucible that brought the scientists together and forged all of these new concepts in physics and engineering, and enabled the physical realization of Turing’s dream. All in all, this was a profoundly human book, despite its mechanical topic.