Alan Turing…NYRB Edition

Re-upping this one. A while back, an NYRB piece about Alan Turing, whom the author identifies as “the man who…had originally worked out the possibility of a universal computer.” The advent of said computer is, of course, of interest to nuclear weapons geeks:

The digital universe came into existence, physically speaking, late in 1950, in Princeton, New Jersey, at the end of Olden Lane. That was when and where the first genuine computer—a high-speed, stored-program, all-purpose digital-reckoning device—stirred into action. It had been wired together, largely out of military surplus components, in a one-story cement-block building that the Institute for Advanced Study had constructed for the purpose. The new machine was dubbed MANIAC, an acronym of “mathematical and numerical integrator and computer.”

And what was MANIAC used for, once it was up and running? Its first job was to do the calculations necessary to engineer the prototype of the hydrogen bomb. Those calculations were successful. On the morning of November 1, 1952, the bomb they made possible, nicknamed “Ivy Mike,” was secretly detonated over a South Pacific island called Elugelab. The blast vaporized the entire island, along with 80 million tons of coral. One of the air force planes sent in to sample the mushroom cloud—reported to be “like the inside of a red-hot furnace”—spun out of control and crashed into the sea; the pilot’s body was never found. A marine biologist on the scene recalled that a week after the H-bomb test he was still finding terns with their feathers blackened and scorched, and fish whose “skin was missing from a side as if they had been dropped in a hot pan.”

A more recent issue of the Review had an exchange about who was actually responsible for creating the first computer. I am far from qualified to evaluate it, but enjoy.

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