In the beginning...

Born on 28 December 1903 in Budapest, Hungary, Janos Neumann was the eldest son of the wealthy banker Max Neumann. The 'von' section of the family name did not appear until later on his life when his father purchased a title, but strangely didn't change the family surname, and used the German form, von Neumann, where the 'von' indicated the title. Janos' name was anglecised to 'John' when he moved to America in later life.

John was a mathematical prodigy; he could easily divide two eight digit numbers in his head at the age of six, by eight he had mastered calculus, and by 12 he was at the graduate level in mathematics. He regularly stunned family guests by memorizing columns from phone books, then reciting names, addresses and phone numbers perfectly. His formal studies started at the local Lutheran Gymnasium in 1911, where his teachers soon picked up on his mathematical talents, and alongside another boy, Eugene Wigner, he was singled out for extra tuition. The boys' tutor was an teaching assistant from University of Budapest, known only as M. Fekete, with whom von Neumann later published his first academic paper in 1922, which investigated the zeros of certain minimal polynomials.

Max von Neumann was not entirely happy with his son's academic choice of career, and persuaded a family friend, Theodore von Kármán, to speak to him in an attempt to persuade him to take up a more profitable line of work. The upshot of this little conversation was von Neumanns stopping his attendence of his lectures at Budapest University and his entry into Berlin University to study Chemistry in 1921. He graduated from Berlin with a diploma in Chemical Engineering in 1926, the same year that he finished his exams at Budapest University, despite never having attended a lecture. This minor point did not prevent him getting outstanding results, and he was awarded a doctorate for his work developed by George Cantor on ordinal numbers. His definition is the one still in use today. At this point he held two degrees, one an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and the other a Ph.D. in mathematics, all by the time he was twenty-two.

John continued in academia despite his father's protests. He was appointed was as a nonstipendiary lecturer at Berlin from 1926 to 1929, whilst he studied under Hilbert at Göttingen between 1926-27, before going on to lecture at Hamburg from 1929 to 1930. His work at this point concentrated on mathematical logic and the axiomatics of set theory, alongside classical quantum theory and statistical mechanics. His main achievement during this time was his 1929 work on the theory of operator algebras when they were applied to quantum mechanics, in an area known as 'abstract Hilbert space', which were later renamed Neumann algebras

The Princeton Years

Oswald Veblen invited von Neumann to Princeton in 1929. He accepted, but claimed he had some personal matters to attend to first. This personal matter was a young woman called Marietta Kovesi whom he married in 1930, shortly before moving to the USA. Despite being equally at home in pure and applied mathematics, John was not a hugely popular lecturer, primarily due to the sheer speed that he used to teach, which left students complaining that they had no time to copy notes down, let alone understand them before they were erased from the board. Despite this criticism, von Neumann was still one of the six scientists who founded the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1933, alongside such luminaries as Albert Einstein.

Throughout his early years in the USA, von Neumann still held posts at several German Universities, and travelled back to Germany each summer, but he relinquished these after the rise of the Nazi party and decided to settle permanently in the USA. Unlike many others, von Neumann was not a political refugee but rather he stayed in the USA, mainly because he thought that the prospect of academic positions there was better than in Germany. On his re-location to America in 1933 he was made editor of the the journal, Annals of Mathematics and a year later he started work on what would eventually become game theory, and published the Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour, which he co-wrote with Oskar Morgernsten, in 1934. A year after this, he was appointed co-editor of Compositio Mathematica, a post which he held until his death.

John and Marietta had a daughter, Marina, in 1936 but their marriage ended in divorce a year later. The following year he married Klara Dan, also from Budapest. The pair were hardly your average stuffy academics. Klara von Neumann had quite an active social life whilst in Princeton, and John had been a star in the pre-war Berlin cabaret scene, causing the couple's parties to be described as being frequent, and famous, and long.

In 1937 John was accepted as an American citizen, and a year later was awarded the American Mathematical Societys Bôcher Prize for his work Almost Periodic functions and Groups.

WW2 and beyond

After the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, von Neumann worked on an incredible number of projects for the War Deparment, including but not restricted to ordnance, submarine warfare, bombing objectives, nuclear weapons, including the Los Alamos atomic bomb project, military strategy, weather prediction, intercontinental ballistic missiles, high-speed digital computers, and computing methods.

Postwar, von Neumann concentrated on the development of the Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS). Von Neumann’s experience with mathematical modelling at Los Alamos, his knowledge of the computational tools he used there, and his associations with Alan Turing, gave him the experience he needed to push the development of the computer. He made significant contributions to the development of logical design, and came up with the von Neumann Architecture in 1947.

In the 1950's von Neumann was employed as a consultant to IBM to review proposed and ongoing advanced technology projects, whilst building his own computer, which was completed in 1952. It was the first computer to use a flexible stored program, the Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator And Computer, or MANIAC I for short. His work with cellular automata, an n-dimensional array of cells where the contents of a cell depend of the contents of neighbouring cells, paved the way for the modern era of computing and also popularized the binary digit as the unit of computer memory.

In 1954 he was appointed to the Atomic Energy Commission. and two years later was given the Enrico Fermi Award for outstanding contributions to the theory and design of electronic computers, to add to two Presidential Awards, the Medal for Merit which he was given in 1947 and the Medal for Freedom earnt in 1956<> John von Neumann’s own death came far too early. He died on February 8, 1957, 18 months after he was diagnosed with cancer. In his last months he struggled to complete his last work, the posthumously published The Computer and the Brain in 1958.

The eclectic nature of von Neumanns work is truly staggering. Apart from inventing Game Theory alongside Oskar Morgenstern, his work in ergodic theory, quantum logic, the axioms of quantum mechanics, the digital computer, cellular automata and self-reproducing systems was ground breaking.

Sources include:
www-groups.dcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Von_Neumann.html
www.nationalacademies.org/history/members/neumann.html
http://ei.cs.vt.edu/~history/VonNeumann.html

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