Turing’s Cathedral

Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe
By George Dyson

On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem
Alan Turing, Proc. London Math. Soc. (1937) s2-42 (1): 230-265

IAS Electronic Computer Project

In this 1953 diagnostic photograph from the maintenance logs of the IAS Electronic Computer Project (ECP), a 32-by-32 array of charged spots––serving as working memory, not display––is visible on the face of a Williams cathode-ray memory tube. Starting in late 1945, John von Neumann, Professor in the School of Mathematics, and a group of engineers worked at the Institute to design, build, and program an electronic digital computer.


There are two kinds of creation myths: those where life arises out of the mud, and those where life falls from the sky. In this creation myth, computers arose from the mud, and code fell from the sky.

In late 1945, at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, Hungarian American mathematician John von Neumann gathered a small group of engineers to begin designing, building, and programming an electronic digital computer, with five kilobytes of storage, whose attention could be switched in 24 microseconds from one memory location to the next. The entire digital universe can be traced directly to this 32-by-32-by-40-bit nucleus: less memory than is allocated to displaying a single icon on a computer screen today. {&myemph;}

Von Neumann’s project was the physical realization of Alan Turing’s Universal Machine, a theoretical construct invented in 1936. It was not the first computer. It was not even the second or third computer. It was, however, among the first computers to make full use of a high-speed random-access storage matrix, and became the machine whose coding was most widely replicated and whose logical architecture was most widely reproduced. The stored-program computer, as conceived by Alan Turing and delivered by John von Neumann, broke the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things. Our universe would never be the same.

Working outside the bounds of industry, breaking the rules of academia, and relying largely on the U.S. government for support, a dozen engineers in their twenties and thirties designed and built von Neumann’s computer for less than $1 million in under five years. “He was in the right place at the right time with the right connections with the right idea,” remembers Willis Ware, fourth to be hired to join the engineering team, “setting aside the hassle that will probably never be resolved as to whose ideas they really were.”

IAS Shifting Register

Electronic Computer Project
Institute for Advanced Study
Princeton, N.J.
Shifting Register No. 7
Functional Diagram

The First Five Kilobytes are the Hardest:
Alan Turing, John von Neumann, and the Origins of the Digital Universe at the IAS

IAS Video, March 16, 2012

Dyson also gave this presentation June 6th at the 2013 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences [Theme: “@The Edge”]. Part 2 | Part 3


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s