John von Neumann

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John von Neumann was born December 28, 1903, Budapest

He was a Hungarian American mathematician who made major contributions to a vast range of fields, including set theory, functional analysis, quantum mechanics, ergodic theory, continuous geometry, economics and game theory, computer science, numerical analysis, hydrodynamics (of explosions), and statistics, as well as many other mathematical fields. He is generally regarded as one of the foremost mathematicians of the 20th century.

Brilliant mathematician, synthesizer, and promoter of the stored program concept, whose logical design of the IAS became the prototype of most of its successors – the von Neumann Architecture.


Von Neumann was a child prodigy, born into a banking family is Budapest, Hungary. When only six years old he could divide eight-digit numbers in his head. He received his early education in Budapest, under the tutelage of M. Fekete, with whom he published his first paper at the age of 18. Entering the University of Budapest in 1921, he studied Chemistry, moving his base of studies to both Berlin and Zurich before receiving his diploma in 1925 in Chemical Engineering. He returned to his first love of mathematics in completing his doctoral degree in 1928. he quickly gained a reputation in set theory, algebra, and quantum mechanics. At a time of political unrest in central Europe, he was invited to visit Princeton University in 1930, and when the Institute for Advanced Studies was founded there in 1933, he was appointed to be one of the original six Professors of Mathematics, a position which he retained for the remainder of his life. At the instigation and sponsorship of Oskar Morganstern, von Neumann and Kurt Gödel became US citizens in time for their clearance for wartime work. There is an anecdote which tells of Morganstern driving them to their immigration interview, after having learned about the US Constitution and the history of the country. On the drive there Morganstern asked them if they had any questions which he could answer. Gödel replied that he had no questions but he had found some logical inconsistencies in the Constitution that he wanted to ask the Immigration officers about. Morganstern strongly recommended that he not ask questions, just answer them!

During 1936 through 1938 Alan Turing was a graduate student in the Department of Mathematics at Princeton and did his dissertation under Alonzo Church. Von Neumann invited Turing to stay on at the Institute as his assistant but he preferred to return to Cambridge; a year later Turing was involved in war work at Bletchley Park. This visit occurred shortly after Turing’s publication of his 1934 paper “On Computable Numbers with an Application to the Entscheidungs-problem” which involved the concepts of logical design and the universal machine. It must be concluded that von Neumann knew of Turing’s ideas, though whether he applied them to the design of the IAS Machine ten years later is questionable.

Von Neumann was a child prodigy, born into a banking family is Budapest, Hungary. When only six years old he could divide eight-digit numbers in his head. He received his early education in Budapest, under the tutelage of M. Fekete, with whom he published his first paper at the age of 18. Entering the University of Budapest in 1921, he studied Chemistry, moving his base of studies to both Berlin and Zurich before receiving his diploma in 1925 in Chemical Engineering. He returned to his first love of mathematics in completing his doctoral degree in 1928. he quickly gained a reputation in set theory, algebra, and quantum mechanics. At a time of political unrest in central Europe, he was invited to visit Princeton University in 1930, and when the Institute for Advanced Studies was founded there in 1933, he was appointed to be one of the original six Professors of Mathematics, a position which he retained for the remainder of his life. At the instigation and sponsorship of Oskar Morganstern, von Neumann and Kurt Gödel became US citizens in time for their clearance for wartime work. There is an anecdote which tells of Morganstern driving them to their immigration interview, after having learned about the US Constitution and the history of the country. On the drive there Morganstern asked them if they had any questions which he could answer. Gödel replied that he had no questions but he had found some logical inconsistencies in the Constitution that he wanted to ask the Immigration officers about. Morganstern strongly recommended that he not ask questions, just answer them!


During 1936 through 1938 Alan Turing was a graduate student in the Department of Mathematics at Princeton and did his dissertation under Alonzo Church. Von Neumann invited Turing to stay on at the Institute as his assistant but he preferred to return to Cambridge; a year later Turing was involved in war work at Bletchley Park. This visit occurred shortly after Turing’s publication of his 1934 paper “On Computable Numbers with an Application to the Entscheidungs-problem” which involved the concepts of logical design and the universal machine. It must be concluded that von Neumann knew of Turing’s ideas, though whether he applied them to the design of the IAS Machine ten years later is questionable.

There is no doubt that his insights into the organization of machines led to the infrastructure which is now known as the “von Neumann Architecture”. However, von Neumann’s ideas were not along those lines originally; he recognized the need for parallelism in computers but equally well recognized the problems of construction and hence settled for a sequential system of implementation. Through the report entitled First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC [1945], authored solely by von Neumann, the basic elements of the stored program concept were introduced to the industry. A retrospective examination of the development [3] of this idea reveals that the concept was discussed by J. Presper Eckert, John Mauchly, Arthur Burks, and others in connection with their plans for a successor machine to the ENIAC. The “Draft Report” was just that, a draft, and although written by von Neumann was intended to be the joint publication of the whole group. The EDVAC was intended to be the first stored program computer, but the summer school at the Moore School in 1946 there was so much emphasis in the EDVAC that Maurice Wilkes, Cambridge University Mathematical Laboratory, conceived his own design for the EDSAC, which became the world’s first operational, production, stored-program computer.

In the 1950′s von Neumann was employed as a consultant to IBM to review proposed and ongoing advanced technology projects. One day a week, von Neumann “held court” at 590 Madison Avenue, New York. On one of these occasions in 1954 he was confronted with the FORTRAN concept; John Backus remembered von Neumann being unimpressed and that he asked “why would you want more than machine language?” Frank Beckman, who was also present, recalled that von Neumann dismissed the whole development as “but an application of the idea of Turing’s `short code’.” Donald Gillies, one of von Neumann’s students at Princeton, and later a faculty member at the University of Illinois, recalled in the mid-1970′s that the graduates students were being “used” to hand assemble programs into binary for their early machine (probably the IAS machine). He took time out to build an assembler, but when von Neumann found out about he was very angry, saying (paraphrased), “It is a waste of a valuable scientific computing instrument to use it to do clerical work.”

“It would appear that we have reached the limits of what it is possible to achieve with computer technology, although one should be careful with such statements, as they tend to sound pretty silly in 5 years. ”
- John von Neumann -


The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) continues to honor John von Neumann through the presentation of an annual award in his name. The IEEE John von Neumann Medal was established by the Board of Directors in 1990 and may be presented annually “for outstanding achievements in computer-related science and technology.” The achievements may be theoretical, technological, or entrepreneurial, and need not have been made immediately prior to the date of the award.

“Anyone who attempts to generate random numbers by deterministic means is, of course, living in a state of sin. ”
- John von Neumann -

“There’s no sense in being precise when you don’t even know what you’re talking about. ”
- John von Neumann -

NSF project: John Louis von Neumann

Britannica Encyclopaedia: John von Neumann

BCC Science Division: John von Neumann

Daniel R. Kunkle: John von Neumann: Genius of Man and Machine

Princeton Campus: von Neumann, John

atomicarchive.com: John von Neumann (1903 – 1957)

BusinessWeek: John von Neumann: MANIAC’s Father

Wikipedia: John von Neumann

Library Thing: Author: John von Neumann

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