Computer Science Illuminated, Third Edition

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Chapter 7: Low-Level Programming Languages

John von Neumann

John von Neumann was a brilliant mathematician, physicist, logician, and computer scientist. Legends have been passed down about his astonishing memory and the phenomenal speed at which von Neumann solved problems. He used his talents not only for furthering his mathematical theories, but also for memorizing entire books and reciting them years after he had read them. But ask a highway patrolman about von Neumann's driving ability and he would be likely to throw up his hands in despair; behind the wheel, the mathematical genius was as reckless as a rebel teenager.

John von Neumann was born in Hungary in 1903, the oldest son of a wealthy Jewish banker. He was able to divide 8-digit numbers in his head by the age of 6. He entered high school by the time he was 11, and it wasn't long before his math teachers recommended he be tutored by university professors. He enrolled at the University of Berlin in 1921 to study chemistry as a compromise with his father, who wanted him to study something that would allow him to make money. He received his diploma in chemical engineering from the Technische Hochschule in Zürich in 1926. In the same year, he received his doctorate in mathematics from the University of Budapest, with a thesis on set theory. During the period from 1926 to 1929 von Neumann lectured at Berlin and at Hamburg while holding a Rockefeller fellowship for postdoctoral studies at the University of Göttingen.

von Neumann came to the United States in the early 1930s to teach at Princeton, while still keeping his academic posts in Germany. He resigned the German posts when the Nazis came to power; he was not, however, a political refugee as so many were at that time. While at Princeton, he worked with the talented and as-yet-unknown British student Alan Turing. He continued his brilliant mathematical career, becoming editor of Annals of Mathematics and coeditor of Compositio Mathematica. During the war von Neumann was hired as a consultant for the U.S.

Armed Forces and related civilian agencies because of his knowledge of hydrodynamics. He was also called upon to participate in the construction of the atomic bomb in 1943. It was not surprising that, following this work, President Eisenhower appointed him to the Atomic Energy Commission in 1955. Even though bombs and their performance fascinated von Neumann for many years, a fortuitous meeting in 1944 with Herbert Goldstine, a pioneer of one of the first operational electronic digital computers, introduced the mathematician to something more important than bombs--computers. von Neumann's chance conversation with Goldstine in a train station sparked a new fascination for him. He started working on the stored program concept and concluded that internally storing a program eliminated the hours of tedious labor required to reprogram computers (in those days). He also developed a new computer architecture to perform this storage task. In fact, today's computers are often referred to as von Neumann machines because the architectural principles he described have proven so tremendously successful. Changes in computers over the past 40 years have been primarily in terms of the speed and composition of the fundamental circuits, but the basic architecture designed by von Neumann has persisted.

During the 1950s, von Neumann was a consultant for IBM, where he reviewed proposed and ongoing advanced technology projects. One such project was John Backus's FORTRAN, which von Neumann reportedly questioned, asking why anyone would want more than one machine language. In 1957, von Neumann died of bone cancer in Washington, D.C. at the age of 54. Perhaps his work with the atomic bomb resulted in the bone cancer that caused the death of one of the most brilliant and interesting minds of the twentieth century.

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Read a chronology of von Neumann's journey from child prodigy to influential computer pioneer on this web site.

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