Computing People In History: John von Neumann
By Kilen Matthews

A pioneer of computer science who introduced and promoted the stored program concept.

Origins and Education
John Louis von Neumann was born the son of a successful banker in Budapest Hungary 28 December 1903 and was a child prodigy in mathematics. At age six he could divide eight-digit numbers in his head, exchange jokes with his father in classical Greek and perform other feats of manual dexterity.

His father tried to persuade him to follow a career in business rather than mathematics and they reached a compromise with John choosing chemistry for his studies at the University of Budapest. He moved his studies to Berlin, where he received his diploma in Chemical Engineering in 1925. He achieved outstanding results in the university mathematics examinations despite the fact that he did not attend any classes. Von Neumann returned to his love, mathematics, for his doctoral degree and he quickly established his reputation as a theoretician in set theory, algebra and quantum mechanics. Along with his thesis he published a definition of ordinal numbers in his early 20's which is still in use today.

Coming to America
Von Neumann lectured and continued his studies throughout Germany until the end of the decade by which time he had become something of a celebrity. His fame had spread worldwide in the mathematical community where he was commonly recognized as a young genius. In 1929 von Neumann married Marietta Kovesi. The next year, amid that turbulent political period in Eastern and Central Europe, von Neumann joined fellow scientist Kurt Gödel in emigrating to the States in time to get clearance to work on the US war effort. He went not as a political refugee but because of the better educational and research opportunities he perceived.

He continued to return to Germany during the summers until 1933, resigning his academic posts there when the Nazis came to power. That year he became one of the original six mathematics professors in a group that included Albert Einstein at the newly founded Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, a position he held for the rest of his life.

Von Neumann first marriage ended in divorce and produced one daughter. He remarried another woman from Budapest and settled in America. There, von Neumann lived a rather unusual lifestyle for a top mathematician. Parties and nightlife continued to hold a special interest for von Neumann just as Cabaret-era Berlin nightlife had while he was teaching in Germany.

The War Years and Beyond
Alan Turing studied as a graduate student at Princeton in the late 1930's and was invited by von Neumann to stay on at the (IAS) as his assistant but Turing declined. Surely von Neumann knew of Turing's ideas on the universal machine but it is questionable whether he applied those ideas directly in his design of the IAS Machine ten years later. There is no doubt that von Neumann's understanding of the organization of machines led to the development of the "stored program computer" concept now known as the "von Neumann Architecture", introduced to the world in his report entitled "First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC."

Near the end of World War II von Neumann served on several national committees in the role of executive management consultant, becoming an unofficial conduit between groups of scientists otherwise separated by the requirements of national security. He connected the scientists of the Manhattan Project with the engineers at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering who were building the ENIAC computer.

After the war, von Neumann concentrated on the development of the IAS computer and its derivations around the world. He also continued his work on developing computers capabilities to address the growing computational requirements related to the development of the hydrogen bomb. Early, he took a distinctly different view from most of his peers, perceiving the application of computers to applied mathematics for specific problems, rather than their mere application to the development of numerical tables.

In one of his most original creations, Game Theory, von Neumann proved the minimax theorem. He extended his efforts in game theory, and co-wrote the classic text Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour.

Von Neumann spent a considerable part of the last years of his life working in automata theory and, notably, advocated the adoption of the "bit" as a measurement of computer memory, and solved problems in obtaining reliable answers from unreliable computer components.

Honors and Awards:
Along with honorary Doctorate degrees from prestigious institutions including Princeton, Harvard and Penn, in 1947 Von Neumann received the  US Medal for Merit (Presidential Award) and Distinguished Civilian Service Awards. These were followed by several awards in 1956 including the U.S. Medal of Freedom Presidential Award, the Albert Einstein Commemorative Award and the  Enrico Fermi Award from the Atomic Energy Commission. By this time he was aware that he was dying of incurable cancer. He died 8 February 1957.

Colleague Eugene Wigner wrote of his death:

"When von Neumann realised he was incurably ill, his logic forced him to realise that he would cease to exist, and hence cease to have thoughts ... It was heartbreaking to watch the frustration of his mind, when all hope was gone, in its struggle with the fate which appeared to him unavoidable but unacceptable."


Some Von Neumann Quotes: