Biography of John von Neumann

John von Neumann (1903-1957)

Neumann JánosJohn von Neumann (1903-1957) was one of the most prominent mathematicians of the 20th century. He made major contributions not only to mathematics but also to a number of fields in science such as computer science, physics, economics, meteorology, theory of automata and, last but not least, to game theory. It is no exaggeration to state that whichever scientific field he worked in, what Neumann accomplished in each can be considered a lifetime’s work. Neumann engaged in a wide range of scientific activities, but two of his accomplishments fundamentally changed the world of science and revolutionised advancement in science and technology in the 20th century.

He elaborated the principles that lay the foundation stones for the operation of computers (in a paper written in 1945). These principles, commonly-known as Neumann principles, determine the operation of computers even today.

Neumann principles:

  • storage and control of a programme and data storage
  • completely electronic computer
  • application of the binary system
  • use of a central processing unit

Today, all information and communication technology devices from desktop computers, laptops or smart phones to industrial applications, without exceptions, are based on the same architecture known as Neumann principles.

Among his innumerous theories in mathematics, outstanding is his famous minimax theorem, which Neumann published in his first monograph on game theory co-authored by O. Morgenstern in 1944. Game theory today is dealt with in the field called operation research. One of the scholars to continue in Neumann's steps was János Harsányi, also Hungarian-born, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1994 for his contribution to game theory of incomplete information.

The life of John von Neumann (1903-1957) is characterised by two features, a wide range of activities and an intellectual attitude, which are rooted in two profound convictions. First of all, John von Neumann felt a high degree of responsibility to utilise his abilities as best as possible, for that would be the duty of anyone. He was a passionate teacher and researcher, who was convinced that his special abilities obliged him to arrive at significant accomplishments that had a long-lasting impact. As a second driving force, he was aware of the political freedom that surrounded him and enabled him to use his abilities for the benefit of humanity.

What he would leave as legacy to the world interested him in respect to how long the work he had done or the output he had produced would be carried further in the future although, strangely enough, he was not at all certain that the work he had done would interest anyone in a hundred years’ time span. For instance, he assumed that computers would first of all be used for scientific and military purposes. He was greatly engrossed by the role they might play in weather forecast, what's more, in changing the climate. He also assumed that game theory would be made direct use of in decision making related to military purposes or economic considerations (the significance of game theory in economics was acknowledged and awarded the Nobel Prize in 1994). However, the Nobel Prize was not awarded for the theory that lay the foundations, for the creators had long been deceased, but for its application in an extremely important field that covers the analysis of conditions for the equilibrium in non-cooperative games).

Beyond his outstanding scientific accomplishments, John von Neumann represents unique value to Hungary as his discoveries and theories brought fame for Hungary as well as recognition for its education system by the scientific world through his contributions to the scientific life and technological development in the world.

Named after John von Neumann, the John von Neumann Computer Society (NJSZT) undertook the responsibility for the preservation and dissemination of the cultural heritage of the profession, and NJSZT’s numerous activities include relevant tasks in this respect, too. As part of these tasks a collection of items in computer history was established, which was categorised as a museum-type collection. With the interactive display of the most remarkable items from this collection, an exhibition on computer history ( was organised, which is comparable to those staged by the world’s leading museums for technology history. A number of completely operational configurations can be found in our museum that are unique in Europe and perhaps in the whole world. The exhibition also presents the life and work of John von Neumann in a hall dedicated to tableaus to illustrate his activities and to relics received from his family, which are on display for the general public for the first time.

Neumann’s daughter, Marina von Neumann Whitman was the honorary guest of the official opening of the exhibition on computer history. During her stay in Hungary she was also received by János Áder, President of Hungary. National commemoration had already been organised on several occasions, for instance, a commemorative stamp (see photo) was issued on the 35th anniversary of Neumann's death or a commemorative year was announced to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth. The series of events we organised in the centenary year was attended by his daughter, Marina von Neumann Whitman, who also met prominent members of the Hungarian scientific life and representatives of the Hungarian state.

Preservation of the collection and the organisation, maintenance and further development of our world standard exhibition have required and will continue to require significant financial and intellectual resources from NJSZT. We managed to find a biographic film, presumably the only intact original copy, about John von Neumann. The film was digitalised and can be viewed at the exhibition, and in the future, we would like to have it available with Hungarian subtitles. For the preservation of his intellectual heritage, we are exerting efforts to have John von Neumann's correspondence and related documents, now in the Congress Archives in Washington D.C., brought home to Hungary, processed and presented to the general public.

“The one solid fact is that the difficulties are due to an evolution that, while useful and constructive, is also dangerous. Can we produce the required adjustments with the necessary speed? The most hopeful answer is that the human species has been subjected to similar tests before and seems to have a congenital ability to come through, after varying amounts of trouble. To ask in advance for a complete recipe would be unreasonable. We can specify only the human qualities required: patience, flexibility, intelligence.”
(John von Neumann: Can we survive technology?)

John von Neumann was one of the outstanding mathematicians of the first half of the 20th century, but also made contributions to numerous other fields in science. A relatively small part of his work is related to accomplishments that lay the foundations for computer science, however, their implications were immensely significant in creating the technological conditions for the information society. As his most far-reaching piece of work, John von Neumann created the Neumann principles that lay the foundation stones for the operation of today’s computers. Their significance is constituted not only by the fact that all computers, mobile phones and information communication devices today operate on the basis of these principles, but also by his paper (First Draft of a Report on EDVAC) written in 1945, in which he elaborated his principles and made the paper available to the public. He wanted to have his scientific achievement freely accessible and used by anyone, he had no intention to have a patent that is in the possession of a single individual or a limited circle of stakeholders.

Neumann principles:

  • storage and control of a programme and data storage
  • completely electronic computer
  • application of the binary system
  • use of a central processing unit

John von Neumann’s last work (published after his death) was a detailed comparative analysis of the human brain and the computer. This is a theme that is in the focus of research in information science today. All this indicates that we are to pay respect to John von Neumann not only for being a prominent personality in the past or the father of the principle for the stored programme, but also for being the originator of ideas that are significant in information science even today. Therefore, it can be stated with certainty that John von Neumann represents the past, present and future alike.

A moon crater bears his name. A minor planet (22824) was named von Neumann. Named after him are streets in Budapest and Székesfehérvár, a university faculty and a vocational secondary school in Budapest, and a grammar school in Eger. In 1999 the Financial Times hailed him as “The Man of the Century”.

John von Neumann conducted his secondary school studies at the Lutheran Gymnasium called “Fasori”, which was considered by many to be one of the most prestigious grammar schools in the world at the time. Thanks to such excellent teachers at the school as László Rátz, who taught mathematics or Sándor Mikola, who taught physics, a good number of students, later to work in various countries in the world, brought fame for Hungarian science and education. Former students included Nobel Prize winner physicist, Eugene Wigner or Kálmán Kandó, a pioneer in the development of electric railway.

After the completion of his secondary studies, John von Neumann enrolled in the faculty of arts of the university of sciences in Budapest in 1921, where he studied mathematics as major, and experimental physics and chemistry as minors. Simultaneously with his studies in Budapest, he also enrolled in the University of Berlin in the autumn of 1921, where he studied philosophy, mathematics, physics, and chemistry for three years. In January 1924, he enrolled in the University of Zurich, where he studied industrial chemistry and earned a degree in chemical engineering. He completed his studies at the university of sciences in Budapest on 11 July 1925 and was awarded his doctorate in mathematics with summa cum laude a year later on 12 March 1926.

In 1927 he became a lecturer at the University of Berlin, where he taught for three years while he published papers on set theory, quantum mechanics and algebra, which brought him international reputation and recognition as a mathematician. In 1929 he also taught at the University of Hamburg, then in 1930 he was invited as visiting professor to Princeton University in the United States. In the following year, he was appointed, at the age of 28, as a regular faculty member by the university. Neumann is said to have been the youngest university professor ever appointed in the United States. In 1933, he was honoured by being offered a position on the faculty of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where he remained as a mathematics professor until his death.

John von Neumann lived and worked in many places in the world, yet he always remained a Hungarian scholar, who received his education as the foundation for his lifetime career at the “Fasori” Lutheran Gymnasium. Through his brilliant scientific accomplishments, Hungarian-born John von Neumann brought fame and recognition for Hungarian science.

ENIAC (Electronic Integrator And Computer)
The ENIAC computer with John von Neumann in the foreground

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 John 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 organisation. He recognized also that the safety and effectiveness of a system is not so much determined by its elements, but by how elements are organised 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.

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.