Nov 12, 2021
John Von Neumann was born in Hungary at the tail end of the Astro-Hungarian Empire. The family was made a part of the nobility and as a young prodigy in Budapest, He learned languages and by 8 years old was doing calculus. By 17 he was writing papers on polynomials. He wrote his dissertation in 1925 he added to set theory with the axiom of foundation and the notion of class, or properties shared by members of a set. He worked on the minimax theorem in 1928, the proof of which established zero-sum games and started another discipline within math, game theory. By 1929 he published the axiom system that led to Von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory.
And by 1932 he’d developed foundational work on ergodic theory which would evolve into a branch of math that looks at the states of dynamical systems, where functions can describe a points time dependence in space. And so he of course penned a book on quantum mechanics the same year.
Did we mention he was smart and given the way his brain worked it made sense that he would eventually gravitate into computing. He went to the best schools with other brilliant scholars who would go on to be called the Martians. They were all researching new areas that required more and more computing - then still done by hand or a combination of hand and mechanical calculators.
The Martians included De Hevesy, who won a Nobel prize for Chemistry. Von Kármán got the National Medal of Science and a Franklin Award. Polanyl developed the theory of knowledge and the philosophy of science. Paul Erdős was a brilliant mathematician who published over 1,500 articles. Edward Teller is known as the father of the hydrogen bomb, working on nuclear energy throughout his life and lobbying for the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars.
Dennis Gabor wrote Inventing the Future and won a Nobel Prize in Physics. Eugene Wigner also took home a Nobel Prize in Physics and a National Medal of Science. Leo Szilard took home an Albert Einstein award for his work on nuclear chain reactions and joined in the Manhattan Project as a patent holder for a nuclear reactor. Physicists and brilliant scientists. And here’s a key component to the explosion in science following World War II: many of them fled to the United States and other western powers because they were Jewish, to get away from the Nazis, or to avoid communists controlling science.
And then there was Harsanyl, Halmos, Goldmark, Franz Alexander, Orowan, and John Kemeny who gave us BASIC. They all contributed to the world we live in today - but von Neumann sometimes hid how smart he was, preferring to not show just how much arithmetic computed through his head.
He was married twice and loved fast cars, fine food, bad jokes, and was an engaging and enigmatic figure. He studied measure theory and broke dimension theory into algebraic operators. He studied topological groups, operator algebra, spectral theory, functional analysis and abstract Hilbert space. Geometry and Lattice theory. As with other great thinkers, some of his work has stood the test of time and some has had gaps filled with other theories. And then came the Manhattan project. Here, he helped develop explosive lenses - a key component to the nuclear bomb.
Along the way he worked on economics and fluid mechanics. And of course, he theorized and worked out the engineering principals for really big explosions. He was a commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission and at the height of the Cold War after working out game theory, developed the concept of mutually assured destruction - giving the world hydrogen bombs and ICBMs and reducing the missile gap. Hard to imagine but at the times the Soviets actually had a technical lead over the US, which was proven true when they launched Sputnik. As with the other Martians, he fought Communism and Fasciscm until his death - which won him a Medal of Freedom from then president Eisenhower.
His friend Stanislaw Ulam developed the modern Markov Chain Monte Carlo method and Von Neumann got involved in computing to work out those calculations. This combined with where his research lay landed him as an early power user of ENIAC. He actually heard about the machine at a station while waiting for a train. He’d just gotten home from England and while we will never know if he knew of the work Turing was doing on Colossus at Bletchley Park, we do know that he offered Turing a job at the Institute for Advanced Study that he was running in Princeton before World War II and had read Turing’s papers, including “On Computable Numbers” and understood the basic concepts of stored programs - and breaking down the logic into zeros and ones.
He discussed using ENIAC to compute over 333 calculations per second. He could do a lot in his head, but he wasn’t that good of a computer. His input was taken and when Eckert and Mauchly went from ENIAC to EDVAC, or the Electronic Discrete Variable Calculator, the findings were published in a paper called “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC” - a foundational paper in computing for a number of reasons.
One is that Mauchly and Eckert had an entrepreneurial spirit and felt that not only should their names have been on the paper but that it was probably premature and so they quickly filed a patent in 1945, even though some of what they told him that went into the paper helped to invalidate the patent later. They considered these trade secrets and didn’t share in von Neumann’s idea that information must be set free.
In the paper lies an important contribution, Von Neumann broke down the parts of a modern computer. He set the information for how these would work free. He broke down the logical blocks of how a computer works into the modern era. How once we strip away the electromechanical computers that a fully digital machine works. Inputs go into a Central Processing Unit, which has an instruction register, a clock to keep operations and data flow in sync, and a counter - it does the math. It then uses quick-access memory, which we’d call Random Access Memory, or RAM today, to make processing data instructions faster. And it would use long-term memory for operations that didn’t need to be as highly available to the CPU. This should sound like a pretty familiar way to architect devices at this point.
The result would be sent to an output device. Think of a modern Swift app for an iPhone - the whole of what the computer did could be moved into a single wafer once humanity worked out how first transistors and then multiple transistors on a single chip worked.
Yet another outcome of the paper was to inspire Turing and others to work on computers after the war. Turing named his ACE or Automatic Computing Engine out of respect to Charles Babbage. That led to the addition of storage to computers. After all, punched tape was used for Colossus during the war and and punched cards and tape had been around for awhile. It’s ironic that we think of memory as ephemeral data storage and storage as more long-term storage. But that’s likely more to do with the order these scientific papers came out than anything - and homage to the impact each had.
He’d write The Computer and the Brain, Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, Continuous Geometry, and other books. He also studied DNA and cognition and weather systems, inferring we could predict the results of climate change and possibly even turn back global warming - which by 1950 when he was working on it was already acknowledged by scientists. As with many of the early researchers in nuclear physics, he died of cancer - invoking Pascal’s wager on his deathbed. He died in 1957 - just a few years too early to get a Nobel Prize in one of any number of fields.
One of my favorite aspects of Von Neumann was that he was a lifelong lover of history. He was a hacker - bouncing around between subjects. And he believed in human freedom. So much so that this wealthy and charismatic pseudo-aristocrat would dedicate his life to the study of knowledge and public service. So thank you for the Von Neumann Architecture and breaking computing down into ways that it couldn’t be wholesale patented too early to gain wide adoption. And thank you for helping keep the mutually assured destruction from happening and for inspiring generations of scientists in so many fields. I’m stoked to be alive and not some pile of nuclear dust. And to be gainfully employed in computing. He had a considerable impact in both.