John von Neumann

by Dirk Rhinehart

CS 105: Introduction to Computer Science
October 10, 2001

Biographical Information:

On December 28, 1903 John von Neumann was born the son of a well-to-do banker, Max Neumann, in Budapest, Hungary. Von Neumann showed signs of intellectual genius at an early age. By age 6 he was dividing eight digit numbers and speaking ancient Greek. At eight, he could do calculus and would show off his photographic memory by memorizing whole pages of a Budapest telephone directory and later recite the entire list. In 1921 John collaborated with an assistant at the University of Budapest to write his first paper, which was ironic since he enrolled at this university in the same year, but never attended the lectures. Meanwhile he was also enrolled at the University of Berlin pursuing a chemistry degree. By the age of twenty von Neumann had published a definition of ordinal numbers that is still in use today. At twenty-two von Neumann had acquired a chemical engineering diploma from the distinguished ETH in Zurich, a Ph.D. from the University of Budapest in mathematics (summa cum laude), and two minors in experimental physics and chemistry from the University of Budapest. (Regis)

"Johnny was the only student I was ever afraid of. If in the course of a lecture I stated an unsolved problem, the chances were he'd come to me as soon as the lecture was over, with the complete solution in a few scribbles on a slip of paper." -Polya (O'Connor and Robertson)

After receiving his diplomas von Neumann lectured at the University of Berlin from 1926 until 1929 and in Hamburg from 1929 to 1930. He was already being considered as a young genius in the mathematics world when he was invited to lecture on quantum theory in 1929 at Princeton by Oswald Veblen. So John married his fiancée, Marietta Kovesi, and came to America. By 1931 von Neumann became a full-time professor at Princeton only later to move in 1933 to the Institute of Advanced Study where he stayed for the remainder of his life. He was one of the original six professors here which included the famous Albert Einstein. In 1932 von Neumann published his first book, Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics which attempted to give a consistent mathematical description of the atom, a problem that perplexed leading scholars of this era.

"His fluid line of thought was difficult for those less gifted to follow. He was notorious for dashing out equations on a small portion of the available blackboard and erasing expressions before students could copy them." (O'Connor and Robertson)

In 1933 John became the co-editor for both the Annals of Mathematics and the Compositio Mathematica. He held both of these positions for the remainder of his life. The 1930's saw von Neumann's family life take quite a swing when he and his wife Marietta had a daughter Marina, but were then divorced the following year only for von Neumann to remarry shortly after to Klara Dan. In 1938 von Neumann was awarded the Bocher Prize by the American Mathematical Society. Von Neumann studied, taught, developed, and advanced the measure theory, statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, and the game theory to name a few. Von Neumann also served as a consultant to the armed forces during World War II. He belonged to an extensive list of academies in addition to the extensive list of awards he received throughout his remarkable brilliant life. Despite all John von Neumann's genius he could not escape death. On February 8, 1957 he succumbed to incurable cancer.

Contributions to Computer Science:

In addition to the numerous accomplishments and various studies mentioned above von Neumann was a pioneer in the computer industry. Von Neumann played a significant part in the development and advancement of computers, in particularly with the logical design.
"Von Neumann spent a considerable part of the last few years of his life working in [automata theory]. It represented for him a synthesis of his early interest in logic and proof theory and his later work, during World War II and after, on large scale electronic computers. Involving a mixture of pure and applied mathematics as well as other sciences, automata theory was an ideal field for von Neumann's wide-ranging intellect. He brought to it many new insights and opened up at least two new directions of research. He advanced the theory of cellular automata, advocated the adoption of the bit as a measurement of computer memory, and solved problems in obtaining reliable answers from unreliable computer components." (O'Connor and Robertson)
Von Neumann first became involved with computers in his dealings with the ENIAC. The origins for the idea of stored programming are disputed, but for the large part von Neumann seems to get the credit. This is largely because he desired to put the programming inside the computer in the form of electrical charges and impulses. This was radical thought at a time when punchcards and tapes were in use.
So, taking matters into his own hands von Neumann, with the approval of the Institute began work on his computer. He completed this stored-program computer which used a series of ones and zeros rather than the customary BASIC or Pascal. Nevertheless von Neumann had created the idea of stored programming that was considerably before is time. (Regis)

John von Neumann was not the only pioneer of this time period in the computer industry. Kay Mauchly Antonelli, Alan Turing, and Konrad Zuse all played an important role in the development of the what we now know as the modern computer.

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O'Connor, J.J. and Robertson, E.F. John von Neumann. (2001, September). JOC/EFR June 1998. Available

John von Neumann. 1903-1957 (2001, September) Microsoft Encarta 96. Available

Regis, Ed. Who got Einstein's Office. Addison-Wesley, 1987.