Computing past

1 minute read

The Guardian has an interview with George Dyson about his new book, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. The book reviews the early history of computing, focusing on John von Neumann’s role.

This passage in the interview is interesting:

JN Another significant moral of the tale is the importance of open publication. The documentation for the IAS machine was all published, which meant that the machine could be cloned elsewhere (and indeed was by commercial companies such as IBM, as well as other research institutes), whereas the guys who built the ENIAC lodged patents, started a company and in due course became enmeshed in litigation. In our time, the computing industry is increasingly enmeshed in the same kinds of patent wars, so maybe there's a lesson here for us. Is there a correlation between openness and innovation?
GD Yes, indeed. And what is amazing and would horrify Abraham Flexner [the founding spirit of the IAS] is that academic institutions are now leading the way in proprietary restriction on the results of scientific research! Of course there are arguments that this will fund more science, but those arguments do not make sense to me. Again, back to the original agreement made between Oppenheimer and the army at Los Alamos: the weapons would be secret, but the science would be open. And the more we backtrack on that agreement (whether with the military or with industry) the more we lose.