Geek Gifts 2012: Turing's Cathedral by George Dyson

Historian George Dyson's book Turing's Cathedral covers the fascinating story of how an interesting group of people came together to speed the evolution of computing.

Author George Dyson dug up interesting information about some of computing's most fascinating characters, and presents it to computer geeks, historians, and avid readers in Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe.

The book isn't about Alan Turing; it is about the ways in which Turing's ideas were built upon. In 1950, Turing is quoted as saying: "In attempting to construct such machines we should not be irreverently usurping His power of creating souls, any more than we are in the procreation of children: rather we are, in either case, instruments of His will providing mansions for the souls that He creates." The title Turing's Cathedral is Dyson's expression that mansions are too small to describe the containers of the digital world that have been created since Turing's time.

The book centers on John von Neumann and the Institute for Advanced Study, the building of computers and the hydrogen bomb, and the way the birth of the modern computer was driven by intellectual geniuses, many of whom had immigrated to the United States to flee a war in Europe. Von Neumann gathered these men and women on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, where families where built along with computers in a sort of intellectual utopia.


  • Available in hardcover, paperback, and electronic formats
  • Price: $14.74 (NOOK); $14.99 (Kindle); $17.61 - $29.95 (Hardcover); $16.95 + (Paperback)
  • ISBN-13: 9780375422775
  • Author: George Dyson
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/6/2012
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 6.58 (w) x 9.92 (h) x 1.40 (d) (Hardcover)

What I like

Dyson brings the history of modern computing to life by giving detailed accounts of the unique people and unique place where the MANIAC computer was built. In doing so, Dyson uses the story to illustrate how the digital world is like the biological world, in that one little event has a domino effect that pushes things forward. In the biological world, one person is introduced to another, and this causes a proliferation of knowledge that pushes projects (in this case, computer engineering) forward. In the digital world, one piece of code is crossed with another, creating a new digital organism that goes on to comingle with other code and technologies, and so on.

But Turing's Cathedral is not a treatise on technology; it is the historical telling of how one group of people came together to speed the evolution of computing. As such, Dyson makes history and technology more accessible to readers, whether they are interested in the historical aspect or the technological aspect or just like a good book.

What I don't like

The text is very dense in places, and the subject matter can be dry for readers who are not particularly interested in computers and engineering.

Geek bottom line

Get it, gift it, read it. Turing's Cathedral offers a unique look at an important part of history that was previously mostly lost.

You can learn more about the book by reading my recent interview with author George Dyson.

Geek Gift score (out of 5)

  • Fun factor: ***
  • Geek factor: *****
  • Value: *****
  • Overall: ****

By Nicole Nash

Nicole Bremer Nash is Director of Content and Social Media for HuTerra, where she uses SEO and social media to promote charitable organizations in their community-building and fundraising efforts. She enjoys volunteering, arts and crafts, and conduct...