The Magazine

What Macy’s Wrought

Of computers and the convergence of minds.

Jun 9, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 37 • By JOSHUA GELERNTER
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The one person not featured here, at least not heavily, is the title character, Alan Turing. It was Turing who laid out a precise definition of a digital computer and what it would be able to do: His ideas created the field of computer science. He brought his ideas to the institute, where he worked briefly with von Neumann before the war pulled him home to England. Turing made a decisive contribution to the war effort by leading the fight to crack the Enigma code. Without Turing, World War II might well have turned out differently. 

Without question, Alan Turing was one of the great men of the 20th century, a tragic genius who committed suicide not long after being chemically castrated as legal punishment for homosexuality. Arguments rage about who deserves credit as the true inventor of the digital computer: Turing, who laid the theoretical groundwork, or von Neumann, who laid the practical groundwork. The argument rages a little more fiercely when Turing’s status as a gay martyr and von Neumann’s as an anti-Communist bomb maker are factored in. George Dyson doesn’t take sides, but Turing gets only one chapter. The computer may have been Turing’s cathedral, but von Neumann figured out how to put it together—and then built it. That’s the story here, interspersed with a lot of pithy anecdotes.

Indeed, it’s the side stories that dominate, touching on subjects from the Lenni Lenape Indians of prehistoric Princeton to von Neumann’s brief and abortive career as a skier. They’re included because they’re entertaining, and because Dyson clearly savors background detail. He writes well, and the tangents are fun to read. But the actual inventing-the-computer material presents a problem, the author alternating between compelling narratives and technical passages that are too long and too dry. If you understand the inner workings of a computer, the technical parts will be interesting. If you do not, they’ll be incomprehensible.

That’s a flaw, and you’ve been warned. But don’t let it put you off the rest, where the good outweighs the confusing.

Joshua Gelernter is a writer in Connecticut.