John von Neumann – Mathematician. Genius. Computer Pioneer.

John von Neumann - Mathematician. Genius. Computer pioneer.

To be acknowledged a genius and celebrated as one during one’s own lifetime is rare. John von Neumann was one of them. In fact, he was even compared to the great Einstein, who incidentally was his colleague in Princeton and a fellow member of the Manhattan project, which produced the atom bomb. The article, This Hungarian-American Mathematician May Have Been Smarter Than Einstein claims he may have been smarter than Einstein in certain areas.

According to the MacTutor History of Mathematics archive “John von Neumann was born János von Neumann. He was called Jancsi as a child, a diminutive form of János, then later he was called Johnny in the United States. His father, Max Neumann, was a top banker and he was brought up in a extended family, living in Budapest where as a child he learnt languages from the German and French governesses that were employed. Although the family were Jewish, Max Neumann did not observe the strict practices of that religion and the household seemed to mix Jewish and Christian traditions.

It is also worth explaining how Max Neumann’s son acquired the “von” to become János von Neumann. Max Neumann was eligible to apply for a hereditary title because of his contribution to the then successful Hungarian economy and in 1913 he paid a fee to acquire a title, but he did not change his name. His son, however, used the German form von Neumann where the “von” indicated the title.”


John von Neumann showed signs of his mathematical prowess at a very young age.

In an article about him in the Time magazine, Nathan Myhrvold (formerly CTO at Microsoft) claims “Von Neumann was a child prodigy who could divide eight-digit numbers in his head by age six, learned calculus by age eight and amused his parents’ friends by glancing at a phone book and reciting whole pages verbatim.”

 According to Wikipedia, “As a 6 year old, he could converse in Ancient Greek. When he once caught his mother staring aimlessly, the 6 year old von Neumann asked her: “What are you calculating?”

Formal schooling did not start in Hungary until the age of ten. Instead, governesses taught von Neumann, his brothers and his cousins. Max (his father) believed that knowledge of languages other than Hungarian was essential, so the children were tutored in English, French, German and Italian. By the age of 8, von Neumann was familiar with differential and integral calculus, but he was particularly interested in history, reading his way through Wilhelm Oncken’s 46-volume Allgemeine Geschichte in Einzeldarstellungen.

Von Neumann entered the Lutheran Fasori Evangelikus Gimnázium in 1911. This was one of the best schools in Budapest, part of a brilliant education system designed for the elite. Under the Hungarian system, children received all their education at the one gymnasium. Despite being run by the Lutheran Church, the majority of its pupils were Jewish. The school system produced a generation noted for intellectual achievement.  Wigner was a year ahead of von Neumann at the Lutheran School. When asked why the Hungary of his generation had produced so many geniuses, Wigner, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963, replied that von Neumann was the only genius.”

Early Life and Education

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica “……………….Upon completion of von Neumann’s secondary schooling in 1921, his father discouraged him from pursuing a career in mathematics, fearing that there was not enough money in the field. As a compromise, von Neumann simultaneously studied chemistry and mathematics. He earned a degree in chemical engineering (1925) from the Swiss Federal Institute in Zürich and a doctorate in mathematics (1926) from the University of Budapest.

Von Neumann took positions as a Privatdozent (“private lecturer”) at the Universities of Berlin (1927–29) and Hamburg (1929–30). The work with Hilbert culminated in von Neumann’s book The Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics (1932).”

Insitute of Advanced Study – Princeton

“In 1929 von Neumann was asked to lecture on quantum theory at Princeton University. This led to an appointment as visiting professor (1930–33). He was remembered as a mediocre teacher, prone to write quickly and erase the blackboard before students could copy what he had written.

In 1933 von Neumann became one of the first professors at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), Princeton, New Jersey.

Though no longer a teacher, von Neumann became a Princeton legend. It was said that he played practical jokes on Einstein, could recite verbatim books that he had read years earlier, and could edit assembly-language computer code in his head. Von Neumann’s natural diplomacy helped him move easily among Princeton’s intelligentsia, where he often adopted a tactful modesty. He once said he felt he had not lived up to all that had been expected of him. Never much like the stereotypical mathematician, he was known as a wit, bon vivant, and aggressive driver—his frequent auto accidents led to one Princeton intersection being dubbed “von Neumann corner.””


“Von Neumann was a founding figure in computing. Von Neumann wrote the 23 pages long sorting program for the EDVAC in ink. On the first page, traces of the phrase “TOP SECRET”, which was written in pencil and later erased, can still be seen. He also worked on the philosophy of artificial intelligence with Alan Turing when the latter visited Princeton in the 1930s.

Von Neumann Architecture

  His insights into the organization of machines led to the infrastructure which is now known as the “von Neumann Architecture”, This is the basis of a stored program computer.

“While consulting for the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania on the EDVAC project, von Neumann wrote an incomplete First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC. The paper, whose premature distribution nullified the patent claims of EDVAC designers J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, described a computer architecture in which the data and the program are both stored in the computer’s memory in the same address space. This architecture is the basis of most modern computer designs, unlike the earliest computers that were “programmed” using a separate memory device such as a paper tape or plug board. Although the single-memory, stored program architecture is commonly called von Neumann architecture as a result of von Neumann’s paper, the architecture was based on the work of Eckert and Mauchly, inventors of the ENIAC computer at the University of Pennsylvania.”

“…………..With his pivotal work on quantum theory, the atomic bomb, and the computer, von Neumann likely exerted a greater influence on the modern world than any other mathematician of the 20th century.”

Turing and von Neumann

There is a case for dwelling in a wee bit more into the difference between a Turing machine and von Neumann architecture. While Turing machines are theoretical concepts invented to explore the domain of computable problems mathematically, von Neumann architecture is an architecture for constructing actual computers.

The Turing machine architecture works by manipulating symbols on a tape. i.e a tape with infinite number of slots. The von Neumann architecture describes the stored-program computer where instructions and data are stored in the same memory.

Turing and von Neumann were contemporaries, who lived during the same times. They formed a mutual admiration club, with each admiring the other’s prowess in their repective fields.

According to the paper Turing and von Neumann’s Brains and their Computers, “Although Turing was 11 years younger than von Neumann, they acknowledged one another’s intellectual seniority, with von Neumann serving as an elder in mathematics to Turing and Turing the elder in computer science to von Neumann.”

“Their age difference is irrelevant in another respect: We could consider Turing the grandfather of’computer science and von Neumann its father, because the Turing machine was invented in the 1930s, while von Neumann’s basic work in the field belongs to the 1940s and 1950s.”

Now, that we have explored the lives of the grandfather and the father of computer science, let us look into the some of the early machines they were associated with. But, you will have to wait another week for that.

Disclaimer: This is curated blog post containing content curated from sources on the internet, to make technology less intimidating and more interesting.

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