George Dyson
Author, Turing's Cathedral

George Dyson: How Turing's Cathedral Was Built

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Very often, the most creative things happen in the most implausible places, such as the creation of the first electronic digital computer at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

George Dyson


George Dyson: Why was it such a challenge and why was it so difficult to implement in hardware and in real code what Alan Turing had developed as a theoretical construct in 1936?  The problem was in Alan Turing’s theoretical model, he has a black box, which is never explicitly - you know, it’s not defined in engineering terms - and that black box can read and write ones and zeroes or punch holes or erase punched holes on an unlimited length of paper tape, but translating that into something that could work at useful electronic speeds was a tremendous challenge, and it’s, in many ways, a miracle that the problems were solved that quickly. 

This was not the first computer.  There were computers before this point.  There were electronic computers.  What was new was that they needed a memory, and von Neumann’s insight was to try to make the memory two dimensional, whereas Alan Turing had proved his sort of mathematical points with a one-dimensional memory, with just a tape that runs back and forth. 

So how do we apply, you know, how do we learn something from this sort of marvelous example of these essentially 12 people, you know, who got together in 1945 and changed the world so much, probably for the better, although they also helped develop the hydrogen bomb maybe for worse, but I think, generally, the results were good?  

The lesson to take from that, in my view, is, you know, let these small, imaginative groups of people do what they want.  Don't get in their way.  What was surprising was that we had, at that time, we had lots of great laboratories, particularly after World War II.  We had Bell Labs.  We had MIT had huge electronic computation laboratories.  There was a big computer lab at Harvard.  There was laboratories in Chicago, Los Alamos, General Electric, RCA.  Yet, here in this strange place in Princeton, there was nowhere to even plug in a soldering gun.  They had to wire their own plugs to plug in their tools to build the workbenches to start working on it.  And, in some way, I think that's why they were so creative, because they were working completely in a vacuum.

You see all too often that, okay, we’re going to do this.  You know, we want to solve these problems in genetics or something.  Let’s build a big enormous laboratory that cost $500 million, and the building is so beautiful people won't want to go home, and then nothing happens.  Very often, the most creative things happen in the most implausible places. 

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd