Who Was John von Neumann?

John von Neumann was a 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.

He was born Neumann Janos on December 28, 1903, in Budapest, the capital of Hungary. He was the first born son of Neumann Miksa and Kann Margit. Max Neumann purchased a title early in his son’s life, and so became von Neumann. Max Neumann was a non-practicing Hungarian Jew with a good education. He became a doctor of laws and then worked as a lawyer for a bank. He had a good marriage to Margaret, who came from a prosperous family.

At a very young age, von Neumann was interested in math, the nature of numbers and the logic of the world around him. Even at age six, when his mother once stared aimlessly in front of her, he asked, "What are you calculating?" thus displaying his natural affinity for numbers. When only six years old he could divide eight-digit numbers in his head. However, even at that young age, he had a wide range of interests. At age eight he became fascinated by history and read all forty-four volumes of the universal history, which resided in the family’s library.

His parents encouraged him in every interest, but were careful not to push their young son, as many parents are apt to do when they find they have a genius for a child. This allowed von Neumann to develop not only a powerful intellect but what many people considered a likable personality as well.

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.

von Neumann 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 became a US citizen in time for clearance for wartime work.

Near the end of 1929 married Mariette Kovesi, whom he had known since his early childhood. They had a daughter, Marina, in 1935. Von Neumann was affectionate with his new daughter, but did not contribute to the care of her or to the housework, which he considered to be the job of the wife. The gap between the lively 26-year-old Mariette and the respectable 31-year-old John von Neumann began to increase and in 1936 they broke up, Mariette returning home to Budapest. Soon after, on a trip to Budapest, he met Klari Dan and they were married in 1938.

Von Neumann's interest in computers differed from that of his peers by his quickly perceiving the application of computers to applied mathematics for specific problems, rather than their mere application to the development of tables. During the war, von Neumann's expertise in hydrodynamics, ballistics, meteorology, game theory, and statistics, was put to good use in several projects. This work led him to consider the use of mechanical devices for computation. His his first exposure to a computer was with Howard Aiken's Harvard Mark I (ASCC) calculator.

His correspondence in 1944 shows his interest with the work of not only Aiken but also the electromechanical relay computers of George Stibitz, and the work by Jan Schilt at the Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory at Columbia University. By the latter years of World War II von Neumann was playing the part of an executive management consultant, serving on several national committees, applying his amazing ability to rapidly see through problems to their solutions. Through this means he was also a conduit between groups of scientists who were otherwise shielded from each other by the requirements of secrecy. He brought together the needs of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (and the Manhattan Project) with the capabilities of firstly the engineers at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering who were building the ENIAC, and later his own work on building the IAS machine. Several "supercomputers" were built by National Laboratories as copies of his machine.

Postwar von Neumann concentrated on the development of the Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS) computer and its copies around the world. His work with the Los Alamos group continued and he continued to develop the synergism between computers capabilities and the needs for computational solutions to nuclear problems related to the hydrogen bomb.

von Neumann worked as long as he possibly could after being diagnosed with cancer. He attended ceremonies held in his honor using a wheelchair, and tried to keep up appearances with his family and friends. Though he had accomplished so much in his years he could not accept death, could not consider a world that existed without his mind constantly thinking and solving. He died on February 8, 1957, 18 months after he was diagnosed with cancer.

Adapted from von Neumann biography at http://ei.cs.vt.edu/%7Ehistory/VonNeumann.html.


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