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The First Five Kilobytes are the Hardest

Alan Turing, John von Neumann, and the Origins of the Digital Universe at the IAS

By George Dyson Published 2012

The First Five Kilobytes are the Hardest... - George Dyson

The history of digital computing can be divided into an Old Testament whose prophets, led by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, supplied the logic, and a New Testament whose prophets, led by John von Neumann, built the machines. Alan Turing, whose “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” was published shortly after his arrival in Princeton as a twenty-four-year-old graduate student in October 1936, formed the bridge between the two. In this talk, George Dyson, a Director’s Visitor in 2002–03 and the author of Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (Pantheon, 2012), discusses the role of the Institute's Electronic Computer Project as modern stored-program computers were developed after WWII. Turing’s one-dimensional model of universal computation led directly to von Neumann’s two-dimensional implementation, and the world has never been the same since.

George Dyson is a historian of science and technology and the son of Freeman Dyson, Professor Emeritus in the School of Natural Sciences. He grew up at the Institute and attended Princeton High School before leaving home at sixteen and moving to British Columbia, where he developed both theoretical and practical knowledge of the Aleutian kayak, the subject of his first book. He began writing Turing’s Cathedral while a Director’s Visitor at the Inst­itute (2002–03), and notes that “the entire Electronic Computer Project was completed in less time than it took me to write about it.”