- Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson
Allen Lane, 401 pp, £25.00, March 2012, ISBN 978 0 7139 9750 7
A decade ago, digging through a physicist’s archive, I stumbled on a document that has haunted me ever since: a hand-typed table of integrals seemingly little different from the ones I’d kept by me as a student. The familiarity of the contents jarred with the table’s front page. Only 31 copies of the table had been printed, the recipients listed on the cover. The table, dated 24 June 1947, had been prepared to accompany a classified report. The distribution lists for the two documents were a close match; nearly everyone who was issued with the table had security clearance to handle secret defence-related materials.
Vol. 34 No. 19 · 11 October 2012
From Philip Welch
David Kaiser gives a faithful account of George Dyson’s recent book on John von Neumann and his role in the development of the US computer, but does too little justice to the contribution of Alan Turing, whose work was the intellectual foundation of the theory of modern computers (LRB, 27 September). Turing first rubbed shoulders with von Neumann in 1935, two years before they met in Princeton. Turing published a paper in March that year improving a result of von Neumann’s in group theory. Shortly afterwards, by coincidence, von Neumann arrived in Cambridge on sabbatical from Princeton to lecture on that subject. Although credit for engineering ‘firsts’ is often difficult to assign fairly, Dyson is at pains to acknowledge that Turing’s revolutionary ideas about a stored-program computer were first realised, not by the Eniac group, nor the Princeton machine, but by Manchester University’s 1948 prototype.
There seems to have been a stark contrast in viewpoint between Turing and the US pioneers. In reports to the US government, and in funding requests to the military (to calculate the effects of thermonuclear explosions), von Neumann and his colleagues expressed the view that ‘at most six or so machines should suffice for the whole country.’ Turing, in an interview with the Times in 1949, declared: ‘This is only a foretaste of what is to come, and only the shadow of what is going to be … I do not see why it should not enter any one of the fields normally covered by the human intellect and eventually compete on equal terms.’
University of Bristol