John von Neumann

John von NeumannCreative and Dreams and Fred Cannon are honored to be able to share the incredible life and accomplishments of John von Neumann, one of the true geniuses of the 20th century. Among his many contributions, John von Neumann is recognized as a pioneer of modern computer infrastructure.

von Neumann was a Hungarian born American pure and applied mathematician and polymath who made significant contributions to the fields of mathematics, nuclear physics, computer science, economics and statistics. He also authored 150 published papers on pure mathematics, physics and applied mathematics.

Born to a wealthy family in Budapest, von Neumann was a child prodigy who could divide two 8-digit numbers in his head at age six. Despite his gifts, his father insisted that he attend classes with children his own age, but he also hired private tutors to nurture his son’s natural talents. John von Neumann began studying advanced calculus under Gabor Szego at age 15, published two major mathematical papers by age 19 and received his PH.D in math with minors in experimental physics and chemistry from Pazmany Peter University in Budapest at the age of 22. To please his father, he also received his diploma in chemical engineering from ETH Zurich in Switzerland.

von Neumann began his teaching career at the University of Berlin in 1926. In 1930, he moved to the United States to become a visiting professor at Princeton. From 1933 until his death, he served as a distinguished professor of mathematics at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1937. He is remembered for being one of “The Martians,” a group of prominent Eastern European scientists who emigrated to the United States prior to World War II and were instrumental to American scientific progress. These men were considered outsiders with incredible intelligence and thick accents, thus earning them their humorous nickname.

Among his many accomplishments, John von Neumann was a pioneer in the field of computer science, determining that a computer could store data in its memory. This infrastructure would later be named the von Neumann architecture, and it would be integral to modern computer design. During his career, von Neumann served as a consultant to the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania on the EDVAC project, which was one of the earliest electronic computers. He wrote First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC, which summarized and discussed the logical design developments of the project. He also designed the instructions for EDVAC’s predecessor, ENIAC, and consulted on that project when it was modified to contain a stored program. From 1945 to 1951, von Neumann oversaw the completion of the IAS machine, the first electronic computer built at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study. He also introduced stochastic computing in a paper in 1953, although his theory would not be implemented until the 1960s.

His additional contributions to mathematics, nuclear physics, statistics and economics are as follows:

  • Founded the field of continuous geometry

  • Contributed to set theory, measure theory, functional analysis, numerical analysis, mathematical statistics, hydrodynamics and ergodic theory

  • Introduced the study of rings of operators through von Neumann algebra

  • Provided an abstract exploration of dimension in completed complemented modular topological lattices in the field of lattice theory

  • Established a mathematics framework for quantum mechanics known as the Dirac-von Neumann axioms in 1932

  • Introduced quantum logics in 1936

  • Founded the field of game theory as a mathematical discipline and proved his minimax theorem in 1928

  • Invented the theory of duality in linear programming

  • Served as an authority on the mathematics of shaped charges, which led to consultations with the Navy, the CIA and the Army

  • Contributed to the Manhattan Project and was a member of the team that developed modern mathematical modeling

  • Developed the implosion lens that would be used on the trinity test device and the “fat man” weapon that would be dropped on Nagasaki

  • Served as an eyewitness to the first atomic bomb blast conducted as a test of the implosion method device

  • Collaborated on the hydrogen bomb project, first with Edward Teller and later Klaus Fuchs

  • Contributed to the Monte Carlo method

  • Served as a consultant to the RAND Corporation, Standard Oil, General Electric and IBM, among others

  • Authored the following books: Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior with Oskar Morganstern, Probabilistic Logics, The Computer and the Brain, Theory of Self-reproducing Automata, The Theory and Techniques of Electronic Digital Computers, Papers of John von Neumann on Computing and Computer Theory and John von Neumann: Selected Letters

John von NeumannFollowing the war, von Neumann received the Presidential Medal of Merit and the Distinguished Civilian Award. In 1955, he was named one of five commissioners of the U.S. Atomic Energy Program. He was also selected to head up the government’s top-secret Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Committee. In 1956, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Eisenhower, as well as the Albert Einstein Commemorative Award and the Enrico Fermi Award.

In 1957, John von Neumann died from cancer at Walter Reed Medical Hospital in Washington DC. In 1975, the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences created the John von Neumann Theory Prize. In 1985, he was posthumously elected to the Information Processing Hall of Fame. In 1990, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers established the IEEE John von Neumann Medal. In 1994, the John von Neumann Award was created by the Rajk Laszlo College for Advanced Studies in Budapest, Hungary.

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“It all starts with a creative dream.” – Fred Cannon

We would like to thank Dr. Marina Whitman for her support and for sharing her father’s pictures with us.