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TURING NUGGETS

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.

Alan Mathison Turing, English logician and cryptologist, is the cover subject of the book. His theoretical insight provided the basis for our digital world. This and other images, from the book.

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.

Women played important roles in operating Colossus, a computing machine at Bletchley Park, where the WWII Enigma codes were broken.

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).

Each MANIAC cylinder of its “V-40” configuration was a commercial cathode-ray tube. Consistent operation was only one of the engineering challenges.

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.

John von Neumann (Neumann Janos in his native Hungary) and the MANIAC “microprocessor,” 1952.

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

One comment on “TURING NUGGETS

  1. Doug Milliken
    September 20, 2012

    A good friend of ours was employed as a computer, she’s just turned 90. She and her husband (long gone) also ran timing and scoring at Watkins Glen, and she generated the detailed T&S reports after the F1 races.

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This entry was posted on September 1, 2012 by in Sci-Tech and tagged , , , .
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