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I did a long interview with George Dyson in the current Wired. We discuss the origins of software, and how a small band of geniuses 60 years ago made the system we are still using today. 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.


Me: 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.

Me: How did the MANIAC project get started?

Dyson: The von Neumann project was funded to do H-bomb calculations. It was a deal with the devil: If they designed this ultimate weapon, they could have this fantastic machine.

Me: So the creation of digital life was rooted in death?

Dyson: In some creation myths, life arises out of the earth; in others, life falls out of the sky. The creation myth of the digital universe entails both metaphors. The hardware came out of the mud of World War II, and the code fell out of abstract mathematical concepts. Computation needs both physical stuff and a logical soul to bring it to life. These were young kids who had just come through World War II, who could repair the electronics on airplanes and get them flying the same day, and von Neumann put them together with mathematical logicians who could imagine a universe created entirely out of 0s and 1s.
http://www.wired.com/magazine/2012/02/ff_dysonqa/all/1
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34 comments
 
Really great interview. A quote near the end reminded me of your initiative to find Internet Intelligence. Any updates on that quest?
 
Theory and practice usually need to be brought together to produce something meaningful, ... otherwise it takes a lot longer, because feedback from practical obstacles to theory are missing as well as the other way around to solve practical issues based on theoretical information.
 
The first stored program computer was a little earlier than that, and came from the UK not the US.
 
Or perhaps, as one story goes, it's like cannons that resulted from being able to cast large church bells: church organs, early stored program computers. It's all music.
 
+Gary Jones There's some delicious symmetry in the fact that in the 1980s we stored programs on audio cassettes, and now we store music on solid-state drives.
 
It is well known that John von Neumann was involved in the nuclear bomb and the first computers. He is one of the founding figure in computer science. But I never heard of Klara von Neumann. Did she really wrote the code for the first computers?
 
It's a bit over-simplifying. Computers did not emerged from nothing (from the mud of ww2 or whatever). There is an history behind, since the Antikythera machine to the ENIAC, there are just gradual steps with sometimes even re-inventions. We have however to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, the first digital fully Turing-full machine was german, built in 1941: the Z3, built by Mr Zuse.
The first commercial computer was the Z4, designed by Mr Zuse.
The first programming language was the Plankalkul, designed by Mr Zuse.
 
Wow...Nice..This is really George Dyson ? He look really old :-)
 
Me: So the creation of digital life was rooted in death?

That question is truly immaterial, and demeans those whose genius and dedication gave us so much today.

Historically, it is conflict that drives the requisite investment in research necessary to advance many sciences. The private sector cannot be counted upon to do it, and governments frequently fail to see the long-term benefits of certain types of scientific research unless there is a compelling need (like being at war with an enemy at technological parity.)

More importantly, you can say the same of most other sciences. For example, millions of people have been saved by techniques originally developed to treat battlefield injuries. Had it not been for our various wars, many of those people would have died long before their time.
 
That "small band of geniuses" launched of of older software languages--CP/M and Unix, specifically. Origins of software date back to the use of pneumatic logic in coal mines.
 
Nevermind--you said Manhattan Project. Still, binary programming still began with pneumatic Boolean used in coal mines.
 
Todays mobile connections are like those vaccum tubes. High failure rate:-)
 
Liked the analogy of cathederal for Google's distributed AI.
 
~ interesting, was the naming of the "ENIAC" somehow related to the "MANIAC" ! ?...
 
It isn't true that the same people invented the Computer - several of the original computers were built in Britain in the 1920's
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