What would the Manhattan Project have done with an iPhone?

A coworker, Seph Coster, tweeted:

My first instinct was to respond with a joke. Something like “#oppenheimerselfie”.

I think what Seph was imagining, is the computing power an iPhone represents. In terms of raw capability, the devices we carry around in our pockets (and even on our wrists) definitely outclass the vacuum-tube based computers of that era. It would have been transformative.


I don’t know what the rules of this single device time travel scenario are, exactly– but I don’t think they could have put an iPhone to much use. The iPhone doesn’t support freedom 0, “The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose“.

Even if the Project had the interest and resources to to compile their code into a form that would run on the iPhone, the iPhone will refuse to run any software that hasn’t been “signed” by Apple and distributed via the App Store. Yes, app developers can transfer their own code onto their own devices, but only if they’ve paid their yearly $100 to Apple.

Among myriad other things, both of those paths for getting code to the device require an internet connection (which doesn’t exist yet), and place a company (which doesn’t exist yet) in control of what software can run, or who is an authorized developer.

Could they have gotten around those restrictions? Maybe. Reverse engineering modern DRM systems (or figuring out how to jailbreak), with 1950’s technology, would be big undertaking. Perhaps as big as the rest of the Manhattan Project.

I haven’t brought up one particular very sweet solution yet– if they managed to reverse-engineer WiFI or other wireless protocols, and run a web server, they could theoretically run web apps. It’s a stretch, but perhaps more plausible than routing around the restrictions above.

That aside, almost any other common computing device, any mac, any PC, or phones and tablets running Android, would be more useful.