The two most powerful technologies of the 20th century—the nuclear bomb and the computer—were invented at the same time and by the same group of young people. But while the history of the Manhattan Project has been well told, the origin of the computer is relatively unknown. In his new book, Turing’s Cathedral, historian George Dyson, who grew up among these proto- hackers in Princeton, New Jersey, tells the story of how Alan Turing, John von Neumann, and a small band of other geniuses not only built the computer but foresaw the world it would create. Dyson talked to Wired about the big bang of the digital universe.
Wired: Because your father, Freeman Dyson, worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, you grew up around folks who were building one of the first computers. Was that cool?
George Dyson: The institute was a pretty boring place, full of theoreticians writing papers. But in a building far away from everyone else, some engineers were building a computer, one of the first to have a fully electronic random-access memory. For a kid in the 1950s, it was the most exciting thing around. I mean, they called it the MANIAC! The computer building was off-limits to children, but Julian Bigelow, the chief engineer, stored a lot of surplus electronic equipment in a barn, and I grew up playing there and taking things apart.
Wired: Did that experience influence how you thought about computers later?
Dyson: Yes. I tried to get as far away from them as possible.
Dyson: Computers were going to take over the world. So I left high school in the 1960s to live on the islands of British Columbia. I worked on boats and built a house 95 feet up in a Douglas fir tree. I wasn’t antitechnology; I loved chain saws and tools and diesel engines. But I wanted to keep my distance from computers.
Wired: What changed your mind?