John von Neumann

John von Neumann, original name János Neumann, (born December 28, 1903, Budapest, Hungary—died February 8, 1957, Washington, D.C., U.S.), Hungarian-born American mathematician. As an adult, he appended von to his surname; the hereditary title had been granted his father in 1913. Von Neumann grew from child prodigy to one of the world’s foremost mathematicians by his mid-twenties. Important work in set theory inaugurated a career that touched nearly every major branch of mathematics. Von Neumann’s gift for applied mathematics took his work in directions that influenced quantum theory, automata theory, economics, and defense planning. Von Neumann pioneered game theory and, along with Alan Turing and Claude Shannon, was one of the conceptual inventors of the stored-program digital computer.

In late 1945, the Institute for Advanced Study embarked on a project that departed from the realm of the purely theoretical. With no laboratory facilities, the Institute was not, at first sight, an obvious choice for Professor John von Neumann’s Electronic Computer Project. But these were extraordinary times–times of war and postwar urgency, and von Neumann was a persuasive advocate for the project.

Through a chance encounter, von Neumann engaged with a team of engineers in the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Electrical Engineering. J. Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly were constructing an Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) under the leadership of J. G. Brainerd. Herman H. Goldstine, a mathematician and Reserve Officer of the Ordnance Department who was the army liaison to the Moore School, recognized von Neumann–already famous for his contributions to mathematics, physics, and economics–on a railway platform in 1944. Goldstine approached, introduced himself and, after a brief conversation, invited von Neumann to Philadelphia.

In the spring of 1945, von Neumann drafted a document that described the logical structure of a desired high-speed automatic digital computing system powerful enough to solve complex mathematical problems, such as non linear partial differential equations (of two or three independent variables), in abstract terms drawn from biology. The abstraction freed the concepts of the nascent computer from the constraints posed by the technology of the era and, ultimately, stimulated the growth of that technology. Von Neumann's logical schema served as the basis for subsequent stored-program computers. In identifying the organs required as those relating to arithmetic, memory, control, and input and output devices, subsequently known as von Neumann Architecture, he laid down the basic schema of the modern computer. Von Neumann was fascinated by the relationship of computers to the brain, in particular, the relationship between the language of mathematics and the communications of the central nervous system.

Von Neumann architecture was first published by John von Neumann in 1945. His computer architecture design consists of a Control Unit, Arithmetic and Logic Unit (ALU), Memory Unit, Registers and Inputs/Outputs. Von Neumann architecture is based on the stored-program computer concept, where instruction data and program data are stored in the same memory. This design is still used in most computers produced today.

He solved one of David Hilbert’s 23 theoretical problems and collaborated on developing an algebraic ring with profound applications in quantum physics. During World War II he participated in the development of the atomic bomb. After the war he made major contributions to the development of high-speed computers; one of his computers was essential to the creation of the hydrogen bomb. As coauthor of Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944), he was one of the founders of game theory.

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