[SIGCIS-Members] My review of Turng's Cathedral, by George Dyson

Thomas Haigh thaigh at computer.org
Wed May 8 14:13:14 PDT 2013

Hello everyone,


The list has been a little quiet lately, so here is the text of my recently
published review of George Dyson’s high profile book. It was published in
SIAM News, which I realize not many of you read, and after a short gap their
material goes to full text access for non-subscribers so I feel OK
reproducing it at this point.


If any of you recently published items of interest, particularly outside the
venues at which SIGCIS members might usually encounter them (such as Annals)
then please don’t be shy about sharing them with the community. (Links are
better than attachments, particularly large ones).




>From http://www.siam.org/news/news.php?id=2054 


 <http://www.siam.org/news/> SIAM NEWS

An Unconventional History of the Early IAS Computer

March 21, 2013 

Why does Alan Turing (1912–1954) peer out from narrow slits in the dust
jacket of a book about John von Neumann’s computer? 

Book Review
Thomas Haigh

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. By George Dyson,
Pantheon Books, New York, 2012, 432 pages, $29.95.

Turing's Cathedral is an unconventional, surprisingly personal history. It
centers on an early electronic computer, constructed at the Institute for
Advanced Study in Princeton by a team led by John von Neumann. Planning for
the machine began in 1946, and it was fully operational by 1952. It
performed pioneering simulations of weather patterns, nuclear explosions,
and what would later be called artificial life before being scrapped in
1958. Dyson knits many straggling narrative threads into this core story. He
sketches the cast of characters involved with the machine and with IAS,
including Klara von Neumann (John's second wife), Vladimir Zworykin of RCA
(who tried and failed to provide memory tubes for the machine), legendary
mathematician Kurt Gödel, visiting British computer pioneer Andrew Booth,
and such Los Alamos scientists as Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam. Dyson
expands these sketches to explore other work of his characters during the
era; some of his story's threads originate in the prehistory of IAS, while
others extend forward into a science fiction future of intelligent machines.

Why does mathematician, computer pioneer, code breaker, and posthumous gay
icon Alan Turing (1912–1954) peer out from narrow slits in the dust jacket
of a book about John von Neumann's computer? Dyson never explains his title
directly. Perhaps it has something to do with the frenzy surrounding the
Turing centennial in 2012. Publishers do like to sell books, and poor old
von Neumann has faded almost completely from popular memory, while Turing's
cultural prominence only rises. Turing does eventually appear in chapter 13,
toward the end of the book, and a little later we unexpectedly discover that
the titular cathedral is Google's corporate headquarters. 

Dyson (son of the physicist Freeman Dyson) brings these characters to life
more effectively than any other writer on the history of early computing. He
begins by recalling a childhood spent roaming the halls of IAS to chat with
its staff, and later mentions playing games with parts of the scrapped
computer. His affection for both is palpable. The human characters are drawn
with confidence. Thanks to his perseverance and personal connections, Dyson
was able to track down and interview most of the surviving participants,
including the reclusive Julian Bigelow, the leading engineer on the project;
with well-chosen and often poignant quotations, he has encapsulated their
motivations and struggles. He also obtained access to important papers from
Klara von Neumann, which are still held in the basement of von Neumann's
daughter Marina von Neumann Whitman. Dyson reconstructs Klara's story in
compelling detail, rescuing an important contribution to early computing
that was merely noted in passing by earlier authors. (Disclaimer: He has
been kind enough to pass some of these papers along to me for my own

The computer is similarly humanized. Dyson highlights the huge engineering
challenges that faced all computer projects of the 1940s, and makes
effective use of the machine's log book to dramatize the constant battle
involved in keeping it running with tolerable reliability. One fortunate
result of his efforts is that the computer project archives at IAS, where he
spent time as a fellow researching the book, have been properly organized
and made available to the public.

The tone and structure of Turing's Cathedral reminded me less of
conventional history and more of the kind of nonfiction that bridges travel
and science writing, practiced in different forms by such writers as Bill
Bryson and John McPhee. Readers are collected at the beginning of a journey
and deposited at the end, but in between their guide ventures down some
unexpected byways, throws in long passages on tangentially related topics,
and builds up to some personal musings on the meaning of life. If the author
has a knack for weaving scraps together, and a voice that entertains rather
than grates, the reader will leave the ride happier and wiser. I found
Dyson's zesty prose engaging but would have preferred a tighter focus.
Readers are tested early, as the world of early computing sketched in the
first chapter abruptly vanishes. Von Neumann reappears eventually, but not
before Dyson has led us though the entire history of Princeton, from the
Lenape clans to the building of a permanent home for IAS.

I particularly welcome Dyson's explorations of the machine's applications to
various areas of science, in particular its close relation with Los Alamos
and the nuclear weapons program. Discussion of early machines has too often
focused on their design and construction, at the expense of the work for
which they were constructed. Dyson's book enjoys a far higher profile than
any other recent work on the history of computing, publicized with a spate
of media appearances and reviewed, seemingly, in every newspaper and
magazine that still employs book reviewers. Many of its readers will know
nothing of the history of computing, and will be immersed in a fascinating
and richly depicted slice of history.

Yet, as a professionally trained historian, I very much hope that Dyson's
idiosyncratic work will serve more often as an introduction to scholarly
writing on the topic than as a substitute for it. His insistence on the IAS
computer and its "fully electronic random access storage matrix" as "as
close to a point source" for the origin of the "digital universe" as "any
approximation can get" reflects an urge to explain a particular episode as
the singular origin of something vast. Pinpointing beginnings is a primal
driver of storytelling---consider the Book of Genesis. But historians have
spent decades trying to move beyond partisan advocacy for one or another
great man as the true inventor of the computer. Looking for a point source
leads to history as viewed through a fisheye lens.

When discussing the influence of von Neumann on computing, historians
traditionally focus on the 1945 "First Draft Report on the EDVAC" circulated
under his name. His personal responsibility for many of the ideas set forth
in the document has frequently been disputed, but its huge influence on the
computer projects initiated over the next few years has not. Historians who
have looked more closely at the era also credit an early description of the
planned design for the IAS computer, circulated in 1946, and its early
revisions as an important influence on many of these projects. The physical,
functional computer was much less influential, in part because engineering
delays resulted in its completion only after at least one of the machines
modeled on its detailed design was already operational. One of Dyson's
idiosyncrasies is to write as if these three achievements could not be
separated, commenting relatively little on the 1945 "First Draft." He places
the full burden of universe-changing historical importance on the physical
IAS computer, which ran its first program in 1951, rather than on ideas that
many others had already embraced, and indeed extended, years earlier. 

Dyson boosts the historical importance of the IAS computer by omitting or
downplaying information on developments elsewhere before or during 1951,
with the exception of a tiny 1948 prototype computer at the University of
Manchester from which von Neumann's team took the memory technology. Dyson's
evidence is truthful, but startlingly incomplete. For example, while he
concedes in his introduction that "the IAS machine was not the first
computer," he never mentions EDSAC, operational at the University of
Cambridge in 1949, which historians have almost universally recognized as
the first useful computer built on the model described by von Neumann in
1945. It was also in 1949 that the Manchester team got its memory technology
working in a full-scale computer. In 1951 UNIVAC provided the first
commercially manufactured computer to the U.S. Census Bureau, while in the
U.K. J. Lyons and Company, best known for its chain of teashops, completed
its own computer and applied it to business automation. Other computers were
already operational in the Soviet Union and Australia. All those milestones
pass unmentioned by Dyson.

Dyson asks in conclusion, "How did the von Neumann vector manage to
outdistance all the other groups trying to build a practical implementation
of Turing's Universal Machine in 1946?" Even an attentive reader might
assume that this "outdistancing" involved winning a race rather than losing
it by several years. Dyson's implication that the various teams of computer
builders inspired by von Neumann's proposed design all saw themselves as
trying to implement the computational model described by Turing in his
now-celebrated 1936 paper "On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the
Entscheidungsproblem" is also likely to raise howls of protest from
historians who have looked at early computing.

This disengagement with the historical literature limits the scholarly
contribution of the book in other ways. For example, William Aspray's
impeccably researched John von Neumann and the Origins of Modern Computing
is acknowledged in the foreword but never cited in the body of the book;
when the two diverge, it is hard to know whether Dyson considered Aspray's
interpretation and rejected it on new evidence. Here is one example: In 1972
Nick Metropolis, a collaborator of von Neumann's and a pioneer writer on
computer history, gave a well-known paper, "A Trilogy of Errors in the
History of Computing." One of these common errors was calling von Neumann's
computer "MANIAC." Metropolis insisted that this was not, and never had
been, its name and that "MANIAC" should be reserved for the computer he had
built at Los Alamos patterned after von Neumann's design. Aspray, and others
who subsequently discussed the computer, therefore called it simply the "IAS
computer." Alone among its cohort, it is denied a short, unique acronym. To
Dyson, however, it is MANIAC throughout. This might be right. He may have
learned the truth from new documents or from his oral histories. Perhaps the
machine was known within von Neumann's team as MANIAC until someone realized
that this glibness would not help their already rocky relationship with the
pure scientists of IAS. Dyson does write that the name was "removed" by
1954. Perhaps Metropolis had a selective memory. But because Dyson ignored
the existing consensus, rather than acknowledging it and justifying his
challenge, he is unlikely to overturn it.

Dyson sometimes makes effective use of technical details to convey the world
of early machines, as in his opening claim that in 1953 the world held just
53 KB of operational "high speed random access memory" (by which he means
cathode ray tube storage), 5 KB of which were at IAS. At other points his
reliance on metaphor rather than detailed explanation can be frustrating.
Dyson puts great importance on the transition of computer memory from the
one-dimensional tape in the conceptual Turing machine to the
"two-dimensional" storage matrix found in a computer memory tube. Yet the
physical tube existed in three dimensions, while its storage was treated by
the programmer as a single series of numbered locations. The relevant shift
was from sequential to random access, not from one- to two-dimensional

The book is generously footnoted, and Dyson has supplemented his oral
history interviews and newly discovered sources with visits to several
existing archives. Yet his use of these sources is a little erratic. I am
currently researching the Monte Carlo calculations performed by von
Neumann's group on ENIAC in 1948 and had made copies of several documents
cited by Dyson. Within his three pages on this topic and their footnotes I
discovered eight distinct errors, mostly transcription problems in
quotations, such as "16 cycles" for "160 cycles," omission of words in
quoted passages without ellipsis, and the attribution of details from a 1949
letter to an episode in 1948. To Dyson's credit, he has made efforts to
correct these in the forthcoming paperback edition. Those minor errors do
not undermine the substance of his story, but their density makes me
reluctant to rely on details elsewhere in the book without external

The best way to decide whether you would enjoy Turing's Cathedral may be to
check the reader comments at Amazon.com. Scores currently have bimodal
distribution, with five- and two-star reviews the most numerous. Try to
figure out which score might predict your reaction. The two-star reviews
come from people frustrated by the book's insular perspective, insistence on
the IAS computer as the singular origin point of modern computing, relaxed
sense of chronology, lengthy digressions, and philosophical musings on the
"digital universe." His fans praise Dyson's lively and elegant prose, eye
for interesting details, and boldness in building what he himself calls a
"creation myth" for the modern world. Both judgments are amply supported by
the text. 

Thomas Haigh (thaigh at computer.org) is an associate professor in the School
of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin---Milwaukee

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