John von Neumann

January 12, 2014

JackGanssle-January 12, 2014

December 28, 2003 marked the 100th birthday of John von Neumann. Since I missed writing about that anniversary, here’s to the 110 years since that prodigy entered the world.

A lot of brilliant people contributed to the birth and explosive growth of computers, but few were such polymaths. Von Neumann contributed to as many fields as he brushed against.

Born to a silver spoon in Budapest when that city was wealthy and growing fast he quickly made a name for himself in mathematics, publishing important papers at a prodigious rate. By the early ‘30s he was here in the USA, working at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton alongside Einstein and other luminaries.

He was prescient about most things, including war, in 1935 predicting a major European conflict within a decade with a resulting genocide of the European Jews. He also said that if England were imperiled the USA would come to its aid.

When the war did come he was an enthusiastic supporter of US involvement and had no doubt the allies would win. During it von Neumann worked on ballistics and the theory of explosions and shockwaves, as early as 1941 exploring the nature of shaped charges. Ballistics would lead to his involvement in computers, and his explosion research proved important to the soon-to-come Manhattan Project.

It seems that aiming a big gun required executing some 750 multiplications to compensate for all of the variables involved. The Ballistics Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, MD had been trying to simplify this since the end of WWI. Johnny, as he was called, served as a consultant to the Laboratory. But his expertise was widely known and he worked on these problems for other organizations. The Navy eventually nicked him; he said he preferred Admirals to Generals because the latter drank iced tea at lunch, but when ashore, Navy brass went for the hard liquor, and Johnny prided himself on his ability to imbibe.

By 1943 he had traveled to England and met Turing, and was thinking about mechanical or electronic solutions for the physics of explosions. Many of his papers of the time referred to “kilotonnage” and “computers.” After September 1943 30% of his time was at Los Alamos. He didn’t invent the explosive lens needed to detonate a plutonium weapon, but made important improvements to it. Now that the press is full of stories of uranium enrichment it’s important to distinguish the two types of bombs: a uranium device is easy to make (it’s basically a canon) but purifying the uranium is extremely difficult. Plutonium is much easier to get but must be imploded with microsecond accuracy, and so those gadgets use an explosive lens to shape the charge, rapidly compressing the Pu in a perfect sphere. This turned out to be much harder than anticipated.

On his one foray into economics he casually cranked out a 640 page book about game theory which is still considered important as it, for the first time, gave a mathematical foundation to the subject.

According to John von Neumann by Norman Macrae, between August 21 and September 2, 1944, Johnny hit on the idea of a stored program computer after seeing ENIAC. The history is pretty muddied. It is known he wrote the “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC” in March 1945. EDVAC was proposed by ENIAC’s designers (John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert) before ENIAC was operational. It’s not clear if the report was ever finished, or if he wanted it circulated. However, that paper documented the stored program concept and resulted in his getting credit for the idea. Eckert and Mauchly felt ripped off, creating a bitterness (on their part) that never went away. But today we don’t talk about the Eckert-Mauchly architecture vs. a Harvard architecture.

Von Neumann was certainly one of the most visionary early computer proponents, and he wrote with an eloquence and persuasiveness that helped boot the industry. He did start a computer project at the Institute for Advanced Study, and in the contract with the Army insisted that periodic public reports were issued with the authors assigning any patentable ideas to the public domain. It’s hard to imagine that happening today.

Sadly, he died young at 53 in 1957 of cancer, which some feel was a result of his atomic work, especially in observing the Bikini test in 1946.

He had a vast repertoire of off-color jokes he used to defuse hostile confrontations, and was extremely engaging, the opposite of the stereotype of the introverted scientist. Always gracious, never one to offend, he frequently hosted huge parties. Unlike many of his colleagues who were overtly or partially Marxist, Johnny was aghast at communism and was a big proponent of atomic weapons and a strong defense.

Interestingly, on-line searches for his work “The Computer and the Brain” mostly gets hits to ebooks. No doubt he’d be pleased.

"John von Neumann Interview", a grainy, undated black and white video on YouTube, shows him talking about the need for more science and technology education in the secondary schools, at least 60 years before the rest of us started saying the same thing. His Hungarian accent is strong, but his command of English is excellent.

Some of the major figures in science sound like dull dinner companions. Not Johnny; I bet a couple of beers with him would have been the experience of a lifetime.

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