“If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at five o’ clock, I say why not one o’ clock?”
Born: 28th December 1903, Hungary
Died: 8th February 1957
Occupation: Computer Scientist
Known for: Stored program concept and being one of the founding figures in computing
Childhood and Education
John von Neumann was born in Budapest in a Jewish family. He is considered to have been a child prodigy. He showed a great talent for languages and mathematics. It is said that by the age of 6 he could speak Ancient Greek and do complicated mathematical calculations. By the age of 8 he has already had some education in integral and differential calculus. At the early age he was tutored at home in mathematics and languages and in 1911 he entered the Lutheran Gimnazium, where he continued to develop his talents. By the age of 19 von Neumann had already published 2 mathematical papers. Despite von Neumann’s phenomenal mathematical abilities, his father discouraged him from pursuing a career in mathematics, since the profession was not very well paid at the time. As a result, von Neumann decided to study chemistry at the University of Berlin and then at the Swiss Federal Institute in Zurich. In the meantime, he also studied mathematics at the University of Budapest and earned his PhD degree in 1926.
From 1928 to 1930 von Neumann worked as a private lecturer at the University of Berlin. During that time he published over 30 papers, making contributions to almost every branch of mathematics. One of his most important papers was “The Theory of Parlor Games” – a paper on game theory. On 1930 John von Neumann travelled to he United States, and until 1933 he was a visiting lecturer at Princeton University. In 1933 he became a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and he kept his post until his death. He is known for developing von Neumann algebra, his work in the field of set theory and lattice theory (partially ordered sets). He also had significant knowledge of physics and worked on the Manhattan Project (research project on the atomic bomb). After World War 2, he worked in computer science. He contributed to the work on ENIAC and helped establish stored program concept – now called von Neumann architecture. In his later years he worked on the question of whether a machine could replicate itself. He modelled his ideas using cellular automata – an array of cells that evolve according to a set of rules and can simulate real-world processes. Subsequent scientists built on von Neumann’s concept of cellular automata, one of the most popular work in the field being Conway’s Game of Life.
Awards and Achievements
- A lot of modern awards are named in his name, including John von Neumann Theory Prize, John von Neumann award and IEEE John von Neumann medal.
- He made enormous contribution to mathematics, computer science and physics.
- Von Neumann published over 150 papers.
- Apart from his skills in mathematic, John von Neumann was also interested in history and had an extensive knowledge about ancient history.
- Von Neumann enjoyed driving despite being a very bad driver and often getting driving tickets.
- John von Neumann attempted to join United States Army Reserve in 1937 but was rejected on the basis of his age.