On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff
I’M ONLY halfway through Turing’s Cathedral, by George Dyson, Pantheon Books, 2012. Even so, I keep coming upon things I want to share.
It’s a marvelous history of the digital computer immediately following WWII. What’s more, it’s a story of insights, intrigues and interactions of John von Neumann and his colleagues at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. These were a particularly brainy bunch, but no less human.
An interesting point was the initial meaning of the word “computer.” Until this dawning of the digital age, it meant a person—one who performs computations—not a thing. And, in fact, women proved to be more capable of this activity than their male colleagues. For example, women did much of the work at England’s U.K.’s Bletchley Park (where Alan Turing and others broke the German Enigma codes).
Another nugget: The MANIAC (Mathematical and Numerical Integrator and Computer) built at the Institute in 1952 “resembled a turbocharged V-40 engine,” each of its cylinders a cathode-ray memory tube storing 1024 bits. The computer was 8 ft. long, 2 ft. wide, 6 ft. high “and weighed only 1000 lb., a microprocessor for its time.”
For cooling, it eventually had a 15-ton air conditioning unit. Here, author Dyson offers an interesting rule of thumb: Run a 15-ton unit at full power with ice-cold water and, roughly, it can produce 15 tons of ice per day. One challenge with the MANIAC was avoiding this unit’s catastrophically icing up in New Jersey’s humid summers.
On the one hand, it was an engineering activity, making the most of available materials and techniques. Yet it also had a highly theoretic side, establishing the basic architecture that’s part of every digital device today.
Dyson writes, “Von Neumann’s approach was to bring a handful of engineers into a den of mathematicians, not the other way about.”
Looking back in 1976, electronics engineer Julian Bigelow commented, “We were lucky to be in on it. We were sure because von Neumann cleared the cobwebs from our minds as nobody else could have done. A tidal wave of computational power was about to break and inundate everything in science and much elsewhere, and things would never be the same.” ds