John von Neumann

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John von Neumann was a polymath who made several major developments to the early evolution of computers.

On the engineering side, after discussions with John Mauchly‏‎, J. Presper Eckert and Herman Goldstine of the ENIAC project, about what to do next, he produced the famous First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC, which set the direction for all further work on stored-program computers. (Which of them contributed exactly what to the document will probably never be known for certain, unfortunately.) It was probably a large influence on Alan Turing's work on the Automatic Computing Engine; and almost certainly was on Maurice Wilkes' design of the EDSAC.

He then played a lead role in the creation of the IAS computer, which was the inspiration for many early computers (too many to list here), which were clones of it.

On the theory side, he single-handedly founded the field of finite automata, and did much important early work in it., including on self-replicating ones.

His overall importance in the development of science and technology in the 20th century is almost impossible to overstate. Some people think he was probably the smartest person of the 20th century - and perhaps ever; many feel that if one put him in a room with Goedel, Einstein, Ramanujan, Turing and Tesla, he'd still be the smartest person in the room.

What is really astonishing about him is the range of fields in which he made key contributions. He started off in mathematics and physics (particularly quantum mechanics, to which he made significant contributions), then created game theory, made key contributions to computer science (above), and finished off with cellular automata.

There have been other people with such a broad scope: Thomas Young, who did very important work on the wave theory of light, and also helped to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs (!); and Charles Babbage, who in addition to his fundamental work on computing machines, made major contributions in economics, mathematics, and what eventually became operational research.

Further reading

  • Ananyo Bhattacharya, The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2022 - the best overall biography
  • Norman Macrae, John Von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More, Pantheon, New York, 1999 - suffers somewhat from being by a non-technical person (Macrae's own work on economics is on the fringe of technology); but still readable
  • Steve J. Heims, John Von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1982
  • Herman H. Goldstine, The Computer from Pascal to von Neumann, Princeton University, Princeton, 1972
  • William Aspray, John von Neumann and the Origins of Modern Computing, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1990
  • William Poundstone, Prisoner's Dilemma: John Von Neumann, Game Theory, and the Puzzle of the Bomb, Doubleday, New York, 1992 - focuses on game theory

External links