Mini review: “Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe” by George Dyson (audiobook version)


This is the story of the early development of the computer in the United States, one that is inextricably linked to the creation of the atomic and hydrogen bombs. Despite Turing’s name in the title, he only plays a small role.  Rather, this book concerns John von Neumann and the Institute for Advanced Study – how a group of mathematicians and engineers took Turing’s idea of a Universal machine and made one of the early computers.

I am conflicted about this book.  It is a definitive telling of the story of what happened on the other side of the Atlantic and I do recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.  On the other hand, it can be rather dry and contains some largely unnecessary information.  I’m all for details to make the history come alive, but some passages take you into quite long diversions from the tale being told.  This could put off some readers early on, but I’d advise you to stick with it.  Also, towards the end of the book the author tries to link the early developments with the internet and technology companies of today but he doesn’t do a particularly good job.  To me it seemed redundant.

In relation to the audiobook version, the narrator does as a professional job – another default American male voice.  It can be a little monotonous, but consistent.  He does a good job with some challenging names of people and places.  There are a lot of characters in this book and he wisely does not try to give each person their own voice.

Overall I would recommend this book.  It is not perfect but in general it is a good story well told.  This is one of the rare books where I would recommend you go for the paper version – there can be a lot to digest at points and it would be easier to follow.  At some point I will pick up a copy myself, not to fully re-read but to be able to refer back to.


• The Wall Street Journal: The Nucleus of the Digital Age

• The Guardian:  Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson – review

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