Biography of John von Neumann

John von Neumann (1903-1957)

John von Neumann was born on the 28th of December 1903 in Budapest in a wealthy family. His father was Neumann Miksa (Max Neumann) top banker. His mother was Kann Margit (Margaret Kann). He had two younger brothers: Mihály (1907) doctor in Chicago and Miklós (1911) lawyer in Philadelphia.

He attended elementary school from 1909 to 1913. In 1913 he entered the Lutheran High School (Fasori Evangélikus Gimnázium) which was considered the best high school of Hungary in that period. He received excellent education in history, law and economics. In the academic year 1917/18 he received the title of “Best mathematician of the 5th Class” and in 1920 the “Best Hungarian Student in Mathematics” prize. When passed the final exams in the high school he had already been considered a well-trained mathematician. His mathematical talent was discovered by László Rátz. During his studies at the University József Kürschák, Mihály Fekete and Gábor Szegő helped him in developing his knowledge in the field of mathematics.

Since his younger years Neumann was interested in the novelties of aviation and technology. He had already been thinking of the construction of a computer based on the binary system. As he was interested both in mathematics and technics, he studied at two Universities simultaneously. On the 14th of September 1921 he started his studies at the University of Budapest. His main subject was mathematics with minors in physics and chemistry.  He received his Ph.D. in mathematics (with minors in experimental physics and chemistry) from Pázmány Péter University in Budapest on the 13th of March 1926. The title of his dissertation was “The axiomatic system of set theory”.
From 1921 von Neumann studied chemistry at the University of Berlin until 1924 when he continued his studies in Zurich. He earned his diploma in chemical engineering in 1926 from the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Zurich, Switzerland.

He went then to Göttingem where he worked with David Hilbert. Here he had his first lecture on the 7th of December 1926 on Game Theory.  Von Neumann lectured in Berlin from 1926 to 1929 and in Hamburg from 1929 to 1930.

Von Neumann was invited to Princeton University, New Jersey, in 1930, and, subsequently, was one of the first four people selected for the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study, where he remained a mathematics professor from its formation in 1933 until his death.
Between 1930 and 1933 he spent one term each year in Princeton and one in Europe. Finally, when fascism came to power in Germany, he settled down in the United States. In 1937 he became a United States citizen. By this time the war was inevitable, therefore, he joined the military preparations against Nazism. Von Neumann participated in the research of application of nuclear energy to military and peacetime uses.
In 1945 von Neumann was appointed manager of the Electronic Computer Project at Princeton, a position he would keep until his death in 1957. By this time his attention turned to the machines mimicking the human brain and nervous system. In 1944, at the University of Pennsylvania he contributed to the construction of the first fully electronic digital computer, ENIAC (Electronic Integrator And Computer). The ENIAC was completed in 1945.
In 1945 he produced a document, called “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC” which was the first important document to describe the basic principles – later to be called the von Neumann principles – for an electronic stored-program computer.
The von Neumann principles:

  • the computer should operate completely electronically
  • application of the binary system, where bits – or binary digits – can only have the value “0” or “1”.  He also proposed the bit as the measuring unit for computer memory.
  • the use of an arithmetical unit     
  • the use of a central processing unit
  • storage and control of a program and data storage.

In 1945 at the University of Cambridge was developed EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Computer), the first electronic stored-program computer to incorporate the ideas outlined by Von Neumann.
In recognition of his merits, the President of the United States of America appointed him President of the United States Atomic Energy Commission.
In the development of his interests the Hungarian scientist Rudolf Ortvay played an important role, with whom he had extensive correspondence.
Von Neumann recognized that the science of the future will focus mostly on the problems of regulation and control, programming, data processing, communication and organization.  He recognized also that the safety and effectiveness of a system is not so much determined by its elements, but by how elements are organized in system and by the quality and quantity of information going through the elements. John von Neumann saw the direction of further development, but he could not complete his life's work.
In 1955 he was diagnosed with what was either bone or pancreatic cancer and died a-year-and-a-half later, on the 8th of February 1957 under military security lest he reveal military secrets while heavily medicated. John von Neumann was buried at Princeton Cemetery in Princeton.
Von Neumann wrote 150 published papers in his life; 60 in pure mathematics, 20 in physics, and 60 in applied mathematics. His last work, written while in the hospital and later published in book form as „The Computer and the Brain”, gives an indication of the direction of his interests at the time of his death.