Book recommendation: Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson

If you’re interested in the early history of computing, check out Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson. It covers an interesting middle phase between the original electronic digital computers and the wide commercialization of computers in the late 50s.

The cover of the book recalls a punch card.

Specifically it examines the people and development around “the IAS machine” at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Big and not as big names make an appearance, and it is a detailed account of the forces at play: academia, industrial, military, and political.

The design of the “IAS machine” was the pattern for dozens of machines around the world. More than one country’s “first computer” was one built using the design developed by the people at IAS. I think of it as the first practical computer – the construction needed to solve a lot of problems that the original electronic computers didn’t need to address because they were just struggling to exist.

I’m not going to lie: there are a lot of “white men in ties” involved.

It’s been a while since I finished the book, but I do refer to it when I need details of how some design constraint was surmounted. It also includes enough biographical information that I use it to jog my memory of exactly who was who. The world of computing was still small enough that people who contributed to the IAR project show up in other places pretty often.

It’s widely available. It looks like Thriftbooks has it for under $5, so you could get it for free if you’ve got some reward points there.

Recommendation: “Citizen 13660” by Miné Okubo

The American internment of Japanese Americans during WWII is one of the many shameful things in my country‘s past that I didn’t really learn about growing up. Only when I moved near a park in Seattle that was on land taken from interned people did I begin to grasp the horror of it.

Highly recommended

Miné Okubo was interred herself and details the account in Citizen 13660. The title comes from the number assigned to her by the government as she went through the whole injustice. Citizen 13660 is autobiographical and told in a combination of words and images that are brief and poignant. It’s a book I revisit occasionally when thinking about the sociopolitical forces that have gotten is where we are.

The edition I have includes an introduction by Christine Hong which helps explain the portions of Okubo’s journey in the creation of the work. The book is inextricably connected to her release from internment.

The author is present in most of not all images – reminding you that this is autobiographical

I should also mention Okubo’s art. I find it brilliant and engrossing. There are very specific details in some images – someone’s expression or just the way some space is drawn. I can’t help but consider how emblematic certain things would become.

I’m not really qualified to relate the gravity of the experience of Japanese Americans imprisoned during the war. Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660 is the primary source I suggest starting with.

Book recommendation: Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel by Frances & Joseph Gies

If you’re interested in know “How did we get here?” then I highly recommend Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel by Frances and Joseph Gies. It dispels the myth that Europe of 500 – 1500 CE was some mud-filled backwater just waiting for some brilliant Renaissance thinkers to come along.

The cover of my copy

Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t a glorious time either. But CF&W explains the development of specific technologies and how they changed society in a way that led directly to the (more celebrated) events of the Renaissance.

Probably one of the most important developments was of a merchant class as a center of power that could rival dynastic royalty. These developed into guilds and families that were patrons of those famed Renaissance artists as much as royal and religious wealth.

It also marked some of the first mechanical industry due to the shift of a source of power not dependent on animals (or people).

Is that person making a glass vase or jamming a wicked trumpet solo? Who can say?

The history of technology as recorded by Western historians is usually Euro-centric and that does leave out the larger context of how knowledge was flowing from Asia and Africa. It’s been a while since I’ve read CF&W, but I recall it doing a good job talking about how the origins of many things came from outside Europe. (And the back cover says so too, so I’m probably remembering right.) As you read any history, it’s worth keeping in mind the bias and agenda of the authors.

It’s an approachable and interesting read about a time you might not know a whole lot about. It looks like ThriftBooks has it, too.