Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Universal Computer: The Road from Leibniz to Turing by Martin D. Davis

Every semester I teach Introduction to the Study of History. The course covers the twentieth century and every student is expected to write a research paper. I have a distinct number of students fascinated with the history of technology - current computer/cell phone/internet technology in particular. But in general the papers are pretty bad (to put it mildly). The students tend to wax poetic about how "shiny" technology is and spend much less time actually writing about how the technology emerged. Not a student of the History of Technology myself, I decided to beef up my own knowledge in order to give my students a better foundation.

Finding good history texts about post-World War II technology has posed a bigger problem than I anticipated. I can find good books about steam engines and the wheel but less about current technology. What I did find tended to be extremely technical - written for the engineer or the scientist rather than the historian. Finding three copies of Davis' The Universal Computer in the Computer Science section at the university library suggested a popular book so I picked up a copy.

After reading Davis I may be a technology/science convert! This book was SO interesting! It was math, philosophy, biography and history of the first computer all wrapped up into 250 pages. Each chapter focuses on one mathematician's quest for greater understanding of logic. Davis starts with Leibinz in the 17th century and moves forward progressively through the 1950s. The individuals he discusses would not necessarily be considered foundational figures in computer technology but their names are vaguely familiar from high school science or science fiction (in some cases) Leibniz, Boole, Bertran Russell (although I never knew of him as a mathematician but an conscientious objector). The most well-known figure for computer people is Alan Turing the creator of the Universal Machine which leads to the logic of modern computers.

Part of what makes the book compelling is the biographical information Davis includes. Not only did he walk through the mathematical equations (which made my head spin) but he also gave tidbits about the men's lives (and yes, it was almost exclusively men) and the worlds they inhabited. It was hard for me to imagine a world in which logic and the debate about infinity were religious questions rather than issues of hard science.

The other aspect that made the book fascinating was Davis' role in these issues. As soon as he began writing about the interwar era he interjected himself into the story, talking about meeting Einstein, about writing his dissertation at Princeton under one of the mathematicians, about reproving Frege's analysis. Davis does not tout his own role in the creation of the computer but his contributions are obvious throughout the second half of the book.

Having finished The Universal Computer I feel better able to assist my students with computer history questions. There's still a lot more to read and a ton more questions to attempt to answer. But I slowly feel like I am getting a better grasp on the history of modern technology.

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