Loving tiny little details? Then this book is right for you. George Dyson has collected a really huge pile of data, most of if personal facts of people more or less involved into the construction of first digital computers in the US. So, there is an alamanac of interesting but to some extent pointless trivia. The details of people and subplots is astonishing:
The menu for October 15, 1946, included "Creamed Halibut with Eggs and Potatos," for twenty-five cents, or "Fresh Boiled Salmon, Parsley Sauce, Potatoes," for fifty cents. Coffee was five cents. (p.90)
The cafeteria was managed by Alice Rockafellow. The menus (for the Einsteins diet, too) were produced, on a manual typewriter, by one of Larson's fellow World War I-era aviators, Bernetta Miller, born in Canton, Ohio, in 1884 and the fifth woman to obtain a pilot's license in the United States. (p.91)
What the book is missing, on the other hand, is what the title promises: Insights into the science and technology of the first digital computers. Many times is the importance of Turing's work and his universal machine pointed out, but never explained in more than a sentence or two. The book rotates about the computer built at the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS, in Princeton) and its driving scientist, John von Neumann, but keeps on the surface about the machine's technology.
Some highlights on scientific fields that have got upsurge from the first universal computers are presented as well: Especially biology, meteorology, geology, astronomy. Again, interesting facts here and there, but no deeper going explanations about that topics as well.
In later chapter the author drifts into philosophical reflections, about similarity of genetics and digital codes, about artificial intelligence, about the internet. But still not much substance; for example, the author speculates about self-organising machines and AI, but does not mention topics like consciousness and purpose. Interesting it may be, but like all other topics in this books it does not give the slightest feeling of an exhaustive and coherent survey.
All in all, some parts of the book are entertaining to read, some are lengthy. But there is no guiding thread running through the book to avoid the confusion the overwhelming mass of details as well as the many different topics and the chronological jumps create. Especially, people who would like to find out what is behind Turing's theoretical work and von Neumann's technical and scientific architecture will be disappointed.
What is left is some interesting information about the people involved — I always thought of famous John von Neumann more of an engineering nerd than an outgoing mathematical genius. But to learn that I had to read many pages.
Title: Turing's Cathedral
Subtitle: The Origins of the Digital Universe
Publisher: Vintage Books