Reviews

Publishers Weekly
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

An overstuffed meditation on all things digital sprouts from this engrossing study of how engineers at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies, under charismatic mathematician John von Neumann (the book should really be titled Von Neumann's Cathedral), built a pioneering computer (called MANIAC) in the years after WWII. To readers used to thinking of computers as magical black boxes, historian Dyson (Darwin Among the Machines) gives an arresting view of old-school mechanics hammering the first ones together from vacuum tubes, bicycle wheels, and punch-cards. Unfortunately, his account of technological innovations is too sketchy for laypeople to quite follow. The narrative frames a meandering tour of the breakthroughs enabled by early computers, from hydrogen bombs to weather forecasting, and grandiose musings on the digital worldview of MANIAC's creators, in which the author loosely connects the Internet, DNA, and the possibility of extraterrestrial invasion via interstellar radio signals. Dyson's portrait of the subculture of Von Neumann and other European emigre scientists who midwifed America's postwar technological order is lively and piquant. But the book bites off more science than it can chew, and its expositions of hard-to-digest concepts from Godel's theorem to the Turing machine are too hasty and undeveloped to sink in. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Library Journal
(c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Dyson's (Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship) history of the first computer is a compelling and readable narrative. Under the leadership of John von Neumann, researchers at the Institute of Advanced Study in New Jersey built the first working computer. The book details each of the principal scientists and their part in this grand scheme. Chapter by chapter, readers are introduced to more than 70 individuals, each of whom played a unique role in the project. Even Princeton University gets its own chapter. The novelistic structure of the book makes it more entertaining than a typical, chronological history text, though at times also more difficult to follow. Dyson often has newly introduced persons interact with other figures who do not appear until later chapters, which will make reading more difficult for those who are not already familiar with this topic. Verdict Recommended for readers interested in the history of computers, history of science during World War II, and modern American history.-Dawn Lowe-Wincentsen, Oregon Inst. of Technology, Portland (c) Copyright 2012. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Choice
Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.

Science and technology historian Dyson writes a superb history of early computing in the US. In 1945, John von Neumann began a secret project at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, to build a Turing universal machine known as the MANIAC (Mathematical and Numerical Integrator and Computer). The MANIAC was "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 endeavor would last until July 15th, 1958. Dyson includes a variety of wonderful departures from the MANIAC story--the founding and evolution of the IAS, participants' backstories and their post-project lives, Monte Carlo methods as "emergency first aid," early weather forecasting, and episodes from the atomic and thermonuclear bomb programs. Resonating themes in the MANIAC story include the importance played by engineers, their impact on the IAS, and how much modern computing is indebted to the MANIAC. The author made extensive use of primary sources including over 10,000 pages from the IAS's Electronic Computer Project and hours of interviews. Dyson's Darwin among The Machines (CH, Nov'97, 35-1572) is an earlier related work. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. M. Mounts Dartmouth College


Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

Many sweeping histories of the computer revolution have already been written, tracing the origins of today's digital landscape back to the ancient Sumerian abacus, yet few are as thorough as this fascinating account from science-historian Dyson. Prior to the 1940s, mechanical devices like slide rules could solve equations or yield simple yes or no answers. It wasn't until a team of mathematicians and engineers led by John von Neumann convened in Princeton in 1945 that the first primitive random-access-memory computer, known as ENIAC, was born. Dyson draws on a wealth of long-hidden archival material to tell the full story of this breakthrough and its eccentric masterminds, including now-legendary figures such as Kurt Godel and Richard Feynman. The most eye-opening facet of ENIAC's creation is just how dependent it was on the same government program that funded the hydrogen bomb. Despite a plethora of technical explanations, Dyson's prose is never tedious as he sheds illuminating light on the genesis and evolution of our ubiquitously computerized world.--Hays, Carl Copyright 2010 Booklist