Barricelli’s Universe: Digital Computing in Princeton, 1945-1958
October 5, 2004. Walter E. Edge Lecture
BARRICELLI’S UNIVERSE: Digital Computing in Princeton, 1945-1958
The digital universe consists of two kinds of bits: differences in space and differences in time. Digital computers are devices that translate between these two forms of information–structure and sequence–according to definite rules.
It was here in Princeton, exactly 59 years ago, that John von Neumann launched a project to do this at electronic speed. This effort was neither unprecedented nor unique, but von Neumann’s group at the Institute for Advanced Study, starting out next to the boiler room in the basement of Fuld Hall, quickly took the lead. The resulting architecture and coding has descended directly to almost all computers now in use.
With a bare 5 kilobytes of high-speed memory, von Neumann and his colleagues tackled previously intractable problems ranging from thermonuclear explosions, stellar evolution, and long-range weather forecasting to cellular automata, genetic coding, and the origins of life.
Why Princeton? The simple answer is von Neumann and the IAS; a more complete answer includes Vladimir Zworykin, RCA, Princeton University, the Moore School, Herman Goldstine, Julian Bigelow, Frank Aydelotte, Warren Weaver, Lewis Strauss, Los Alamos, the Army, the Navy, and the AEC.
There were ideas afoot in Princeton, before the war, that had shifted the very foundations of mathematics and with post-war electronics were ready to be fulfilled. Kurt Gödel’s results of 1931, and Alan Turing’s results of 1936, set the stage for the digital revolution that was started here. Von Neumann broke the distinction between numbers that *mean* things and numbers that *do* things. Nothing in our universe would ever be the same.
George Dyson is the son of English physicist Freeman J. Dyson and Swiss mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson. He was born in Ithaca, New York in 1953. He left home at age 16, moving to British Columbia to build canoes, explore the Northwest Coast, and make his home in a treehouse at a height of 95 feet. In 1978 his resurrection of the baidarka, or Aleut kayak, was contrasted with his father’s design for an interplanetary spacecraft in Kenneth Brower’s dual biography, The Starship and the Canoe. As a historian among futurists, has been excavating the history and prehistory of the digital revolution going back 300 years. He lives in Bellingham, WA.