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John von Neumann

John von Neumann was the scientist who conceived a fundamental idea that serves all modern computers - that a computer's program and the data that it processes do not have to be fed into the computer while it is working, but can be kept in the computer's memory - a notion generally referred to as the stored-program computer . In his short life, von Neumann became one of the most acclaimed and lauded scientists of the 20th century. He left an indelible mark on the fields of mathematics, quantum theory, game theory, nuclear physics, and computer science. 

Born in Budapest, von Neumann was a child prodigy who went on to study chemistry in Berlin and Zurich, where he earned a Diploma in Chemical Engineering in 1926. His doctorate in mathematics (on set theory) from the University of Budapest followed in the same year. After lecturing at Berlin and Hamburg, von Neumann emigrated to the US in 1930 where he worked at Princeton and was one of the founding members of the Institute for Advanced Studies.

At Princeton, von Neumann lectured in the nascent field of quantum theory and through his work on rings of operators (later renamed Neumann algebras) he helped develop the mathematical foundations of that theory which were unveiled in the paper "Mathematische Grundlagen der Quantenmechanik" (1932). His seminal publication on game theory, "Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour" was published in 1934 with co-author Oskar Morgenstern.

Spurred by an interest in hydrodynamics and the difficulty of solving the non-linear partial differential equations involved, von Neumann turned to the emerging field of computing. His first introduction to computers was Howard Aiken's Harvard Mark I. As a consultant to Eckert and Mauchly on the ENIAC, he devised a concept for computer architecture that remains with us to this day. Known subsequently as the "von Neumann architecture", the stored-program computer (where both the instructions and the data they operate upon reside together in memory) with its central controller, I/O, and memory was outlined in a "Draft Report" and paved the way for the modern era of computing. 

von Neumann was constantly busy with both his extensive consulting career and his varied research interests. von Neumann was a pioneer in the field of cellular automata (an n-dimensional array of cells where the contents of a cell depend of the contents of neighbouring cells) and also popularized the binary digit as the unit of computer memory. Among his employers was the U.S. military, for whom he worked on the development of the hydrogen bomb. He received the Enrico Fermi award in 1956, the latest in a long line of honors (including 7 honorary doctorates and 2 Presidential Awards). John von Neumann died on February 8, 1957 in Washington D.C.

This was last updated in July 2008

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