Tales of 1940s-50s computing

In 1953, the world contained 5 kilobytes of electronic memory.

John von Neumann and the nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer in front of the EDVAC
John von Neumann and the nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer in front of the EDVAC
George Dyson, son of physicist Freeman Dyson and brother of I.T. pundit Esther Dyson, tells the story of electronic computers’ early days. I loved listening to his 52-minute aural presentation. He describes the early post-war activities of computer pioneers John von Neumann, Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing, and Paul Erdős. George’s father rubbed elbows with these guys at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, so George has personal childhood memories of some of these giants.

He points out that Alan Turing’s hypothetical Turing Machine (which stored instructions and data sequentially on a tape) of 1936 gave us a one-dimensional computing model. With 1945’s EDVAC design, John von Neumann gave us a two-dimensional model (which stored instructions and data in a matrix). Today’s computers are just very fast iterations of 1945’s von Neumann model.

John von NeumannVon Neumann was at the center of not just computing, but also development of the hydrogen bomb, study of climate change, and exploration of DNA.

Back in 1953, von Neumann and crew at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies explored nuclear fission, shock waves, weather prediction, biological evolution, and stellar evolution — in just 5 kilobytes of memory!

Von Neumann died in 1957. Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies pulled the plug on his computer in 1958.


ListenGeorge Dyson is an outdoorsman and master kayak builder. (For 3 years he lived 90 feet up in a tree house.) He mixes a love of the outdoors with knowledge of science and technology. He discusses his life and interests in this 67-minute audio interview. Here’s a 12-minute interview.

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