How the Nuclear Bomb Gave Us the Computer

BY Rebecca Jacobson  May 24, 2012 at 3:14 PM EST



At the close of World War II, in Princeton, N.J.’s Institute for Advanced Study, an extension of the Manhattan Project was busy building a bomb that would be a thousand times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaski, Japan.

With a contract from the U.S. military and under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer, John von Neumann, a Hungarian American mathematician, and a team of mathematicians, physicists and engineers began working on a better, faster computer that could run the calculations needed to build the hydrogen bomb.

Von Neumann’s massive computer needed its own room. It ran on five kilobytes of memory, the amount of memory it takes to create a cursor today. Von Neumann’s design not only gave life to the hydrogen bomb, it became the prototype for modern computers, from the desktop to the iPad. To the team, building the bomb was a means to building better computers.

While all this was happening, George Dyson and his sisters were running around the grounds of IAS while their mathematician parents Freeman Dyson and Verena Huber-Dyson were busy researching and writing papers.

In the book “Turing’s Cathedral,” George Dyson recalls his childhood at IAS, the dawn of the computer age, and the mathematicians who turned “numbers that meant things” into “numbers that did things.”

Dyson described the atmosphere of IAS as more like a start-up in a garage than a university, where people like Albert Einstein worked night and day with limited resources. Von Neumann shared his designs openly with scientists across the country, even though their work was reprehensible to many on the project, including Oppenheimer.

And the pressure was on to move faster. The United States was in an arms race with the Soviet Union, whose spy Klaus Fuchs had already infiltrated the Los Alamos laboratory during the construction of the plutonium bomb.

Dyson sat down recently with the NewsHour’s Hari Sreenivasan to discuss how the computer he grew up with used five kilobytes of memory to start building a digital universe.