The Tale of the Big Computer

I first heard of Hannes Alfvén’s The Tale of the Big Computer when I read George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral. That book is readily available: Amazon tells me that I bought my own copy in September of 2013, and not only do I recommend it highly to anyone I think might be interested, I apparently bought four copies to give to others.

Dyson’s book is not fundamentally about Turing; it centers on the construction of one of the early stored-program computers under the leadership of the Hungarian mathematical superstar John von Neumann, at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. The IAS machine, sometimes known as “MANIAC,” was seminal because it was open-sourced and widely copied—typically with various improvements—which was not possible with early computers developed by IBM, UNIVAC, and others.

One of those early copies was built in Sweden, and Alfvén, a founder of plasma physics who went on to win the Nobel prize in 1970 for the development of magnetohydrodynamics, had a front row seat. When his daughter suggested that he write a story for his 5-year-old grandson who was reportedly bored with Winnie the Pooh, Alfvén wrote The Tale of the Big Computer under the pseudonym Olof Johannesson. It was published in Swedish in 1966, with an American edition in 1968.

Chapter 17 of Dyson’s book takes its title from Alfvén’s book, describing it and its genesis in some detail. Narrating retrospectively from the future, Alfvén’s gives a remarkably prescient picture of the rise of computer networks and our interactions with them up to the present. As to the accuracy of his the rest of the story, we will have to wait and see.

I was intrigued enough by Dyson’s description that I tried to find a copy. It doesn’t appear to be in print anywhere, and I couldn’t even find outrageously-priced used copies to be snapped up by Silicon Valley zillionaires. My university library, however, was willing to deliver scans of it, one chapter at a time. Fortunately, there were only four of them. I planned to join them together to make a pdf of the whole book. It looks like that was back in 2015.

Well, I have finally done it, spurred on by conversations with Patrick McCray. See below.

Anna Lundh wrote a 2001 piece about the book in Triple Canopy. Here is a 2020 piece by Johan Gärdebo published by the Society for Social Studies of Science. The “featured image” for this post is taken from that piece, where it appeared with the caption “Image: Hannes Alfvén, “The Tale of the Big Computer – A vision”. Pilgrim Press, ©Alfvén (1987 [1966]). Source: Hannes Alfvén Repository. KTH Royal Institute of Technology.” This is obviously not the cover of the original edition, since it appears under Alfvén’s name.

Finally, here’s the book itself. The copyright information is included. If the copyright holder tells me to take it down, I will… and I would be happy to do so if the book were available in some other form.

[Edit 7/12/2022: by googling the pseudonym, John Levine found an existing online version at the Internet Archive, and copies for sale.]

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