The Technium

Filling Turing’s Cathedral

I did a long interview with George Dyson in the current Wired. We discuss the origins of software, and how a small band of geniuses 60 years ago made the system we are still using today. The two most powerful technologies of the 20th century–the nuclear bomb and the computer–were invented at the same time and by the same group of young people. But while the history of the Manhattan Project has been well told, the origin of the computer is relatively unknown. Excerpts:

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Me: Because your father, Freeman Dyson, worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, you grew up around folks who were building one of the first computers. Was that cool?

George Dyson: The institute was a pretty boring place, full of theoreticians writing papers. But in a building far away from everyone else, some engineers were building a computer, one of the first to have a fully electronic random-access memory. For a kid in the 1950s, it was the most exciting thing around. I mean, they called it the MANIAC! The computer building was off-limits to children, but Julian Bigelow, the chief engineer, stored a lot of surplus electronic equipment in a barn, and I grew up playing there and taking things apart.

Me: How did the MANIAC project get started?

Dyson: The von Neumann project was funded to do H-bomb calculations. It was a deal with the devil: If they designed this ultimate weapon, they could have this fantastic machine.

Me: So the creation of digital life was rooted in death?

Dyson: In some creation myths, life arises out of the earth; in others, life falls out of the sky. The creation myth of the digital universe entails both metaphors. The hardware came out of the mud of World War II, and the code fell out of abstract mathematical concepts. Computation needs both physical stuff and a logical soul to bring it to life. These were young kids who had just come through World War II, who could repair the electronics on airplanes and get them flying the same day, and von Neumann put them together with mathematical logicians who could imagine a universe created entirely out of 0s and 1s.

Me: What were these guys like?

Dyson: They were hackers. They were young men and women, mostly in their twenties. The ones in their thirties were considered old. They did all the things hackers do: working all night, living for their code, arguing over whether a problem was due to software or hardware. They kept logbooks where they left notes telling the next shift what they had done, and they filled them with dark nerd humor, the same sort of sarcastic jokes you find on email and comment threads today. Von Neumann was warned by the director that his “computer people” were consuming too much sugar–when sugar was still rationed. And they were fast. They completed the entire project in less time than it took me to write about it!

Me: Other than bombs, what did they use the MANIAC for?

Dyson: They were gung ho on numerical weather prediction, and they made amazingly good progress in the first few years. Remember, all they had was 5 kilobytes of memory, running at a speed of 8 kilocycles. Yet by 1954 they were predicting weather for the northern hemisphere.


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