Part 3
Tribute: John von Neumann
Man from Budapest

adapted from from an article in
Sophisticated: The Magazine 
Copyright ©1996 by Paul Niquette, all rights reserved.

he road wound through the hills of Pennsylvania. I steered as close to the line as I dared. The tires on the rented stationwagon squealed, making my passengers gasp. All three of them must be wondering if they have made the right decision to share expenses with me. I glanced at my watch and shook my head. Never make it.

The gentleman in the seat beside me gaped through the windshield. He asked politely about the paper I gave yesterday at Pennsylvania State University. That was several miles ago. "Computer-driven displays," I had answered. I have to concentrate on the road. If I miss the last flight out of Pittsburgh, I won't get to my home in Somers Point, New Jersey until Saturday afternoon.

"It was most informative," said a man in the seat directly behind me. I glanced in the rear-view mirror. He craned his neck to catch my eye and smiled. The man, who had introduced himself as Ted, was apparently the only person in the car who had attended the AIEE (American Institute of Electrical Engineers) conference where I gave my paper.

"It was the second version," said I, unskilled at receiving compliments with modesty. "My first, which was delivered at a 'Track-While-Scan' conference in Boston, has been quite popular."

This frantic automobile trip was made necessary by high winds at the College Park airport. Standing outside the terminal building, the four of us had watched the twin-engine Martinliner 404 being tossed about in the sky, circling the field. An announcement crackled over the public address system, "Flight [whatever] has been cancelled."

My passengers are professors and administrators at Penn State. In this group, I was the only visitor.  That gave me a minor celebrity status. We all had one thing in common: a need to make connections at the Pittsburgh airport, which is a hundred miles to the west of State College. I was in the greatest hurry -- and my destination was in the opposite direction.  Philadelphia International is a hundred miles to the east.

"You are only the second person I've met who actually works with computers," said the gentleman beside me. That was not an extraordinary statement in 1959. The man had introduced himself at the car rental. "My friends call me Zach," he said. Zach was about the age of my father, distinguished in his grey vest and silver hair. He did not use the expression "giant brains," which would have afforded me an opportunity to disabuse him and my other passengers of a common myth of that time.

"My first computer was the SWAC at UCLA," I said.

"Let me out of the car," protested Ted.  The man was in his thirties and wore a flat-top, obviously a USC fan.

"SWAC stands for 'Standards Western Automatic Computer'," said I.  "Also called the 'Zephyr', the SWAC was the fastest computer for its time."  I explained that in the earliest days, each computer had a name, most commonly ending in '-AC' (for automatic computer): EDSAC, ENIAC, UNIVAC. By the late fifties, computers began to have model numbers. For my research in air traffic control, which I had described in my paper, I was programming the IBM 704 and building what are called "real-time" systems using the computer sold by my company, which was the RW-300.

"Who invented the computer?" asked the psychology professor from the back seat, the only woman in our party.

"Many persons, certainly," I replied. The road into Altoona became straighter, and I like to talk. I glanced over my shoulder. The woman was in her forties, which for me at that time meant old, with graying hair pulled back in black combs.  I commenced an excerpt from one of my lectures at Los Angeles Tech. "Any list of inventors will have to include four names: Babbage and Boole in the last century, Turing and von Neumann in this century. My idol since childhood is John von Neumann. I should say, he was my idol. He died last February. Anyway, back in the forties, von Neumann wrote a paper -- "

"Did you know him?" Zach asked suddenly. There was more than curiosity in his interruption. I wondered what it was.

"A couple of years ago, von Neumann visited the RAND Corporation in California. I had an opportunity to hear him speak. He accomplished so many things: statistical mathematics, quantum physics, game theory -- you know, 'saddle-points': where 'minimax' meets 'maximin.' Then in computers, he -- "

"So you at least met Johnny," Zach said, with a strange insistence in his voice.

I stole a glance. "You call him Johnny?"

Zach nodded solemnly.

"Hey, you must have known him," I exclaimed.

He nodded again and looked away. I focussed on the road ahead.  I wanted to find out more, but before I could pose a question, Ted spoke up. "What was the paper about?"

"Von Neumann described a new machine, which was eventually built -- the 'EDVAC' -- 'Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer.' His paper was the first description of a stored-program computer. It will be known for all time as 'the von Neumann machine'."

"What is so special about the von Neumann computer?" the woman asked.

"The short answer is, it executes programs made up of modifiable commands. The programs are held in a 'store.' Some people like to use the word 'memory,' but it's not much like the memories we have. Anyway, stored-program computers perform operations on what we call operands, and -- this may sound crazy -- they perform operations on their own instructions! That's what's special about them as much as anything else. That and making decisions based on the values of operands; they do that, too, thanks to John von Neumann. Imagine, he even had a computer named after himself: the JOHNIAC. I have been reading about his work since high school. Once you have programs that can change themselves, and -- oh yes, speed -- well, there's no limit to what you can do."

That exchange launched a lecture to my captive audience that continued all the way to Pittsburgh, delving deeper into the early ideas of computers and the amazing feats of von Neumann. "He was my Dimaggio," I said at one point. "There's this famous story about the first hydrogen bomb," I said, "which was soon to be set off in the Pacific Ocean." I explained that one out of every 2,500 water molecules has a deuterium atom instead of hydrogen. "'Heavy water,' it's called. Deuterium is just what you need to make a hydrogen bomb. The question was: Will an H-bomb set off a chain reaction in the ocean itself and destroy the earth?"

"Kind of an important question," mused Ted from the back seat.

"And the answer, yes or no, required a huge amount of statistical calculations, for which the Atomic Energy Commission commissioned a new computer. John von Neuman was brought in to consult on the project, and during one meeting, he was seen scratching out some calculations. In minutes, von Neuman presented the solution and then asked, 'What do you need a computer for?' Someone laughed. 'Because we don't always have you, Johnny'."

With no prompting from my passengers whatsoever, I began talking about my father, who filled our garage with surplus electronic components after the war. In high school I was given a book on symbolic logic and decided to build a machine to test syllogisms. The contraption, which was built on my mother's discarded breadboard, had a truth-table generator and a plug-board on an unpainted plywood panel. I had plenty of relays and wire, selenium rectifiers and transformers, but I had to spend all my money at the hardware store for nuts and bolts and brackets. I could plug together simple "conclusions" and test them against logical "premises." A valid syllogism means that if the premises are true, the conclusion cannot be false. The syllogism prover occasionally worked: clicking along, "exhausting all combinations of truth and falsity upon the variables." I would watch the light bulb labeled "invalid" to see if it ever flickered.

My father puffed his pipe. "Quite a light switch you have there."

he road approaching Pittsburgh curved through verdant valleys. "To answer your question, Zach," I continued, "I never met von Neumann, but in junior college, I read every article about him in Science Digest. I studied everything I could find in the library on the stored program digital computer. I taught myself to program simple machines of my own design. A year later, in 1953, I met the SWAC at UCLA."

"Red Sanders had a great year in '53," said Ted.

I shrugged.

"Your coach at UCLA -- Red Sanders."

"Didn't have much time for sports," I said. "Working alongside my mentor, Dan Gerlough, I got my excitement mostly by writing 'routines' and 'subroutines,' 'loops' and 'branches'."

"The Bruins shut out the Trojans 13-0 and won the Rose Bowl."

"If you say so."  I grinned at my passengers in the rear-view mirror.  "Ah, but it really is exciting when you have a machine executing thousands of instructions every second -- tirelessly and exactly doing your work like magic.   You prepare programs in special codes that the machine can read and understand and then you let it fly! That's the exciting part. When it works.  Now, digital computers will make mistakes just as fast, too.  Your mistakes.  You have to fix your programs sometimes, but modifications are easy. You just punch up a Hollerith card and read it into the computer. Not like messing with those tangled wires on a plug-board. That was hardware. Programming is something else. Sure, you need hardware to run your program.  Hardware is worthless without its programs.  The hardware needs -- well, what I call 'soft-ware'."

"I think I heard you mention 'software' in your talk yesterday," said Ted. "I wondered what you meant by that term."

"Software," mused the woman with the combs. "What a wonderful word!"

I glanced across at the man in the seat beside me. "Do you think John von Neumann would have liked the word 'software'?" I asked. Zach nodded unsmiling.

As we pulled into the Pittsburgh airport, I prepared to jump out and run for my plane. Zach had not spoken since before Altoona. I reached across to shake his hand and saw that he had tears in his eyes. His voice wavered. "My wife and I..."

Ted thanked me for the ride and offered to turn in the stationwagon. I opened the door and tossed him the keys.

"My wife and I," said Zach, "were Johnny's sponsors when he first arrived from Germany. He and his wife lived with us for their first weeks in the U.S. She -- my wife -- will be touched when I tell her about you. And, from what you have told me this afternoon, I now have for the first time an understanding of Johnny's work, his contributions."

John von Neumann

he fifties marked the beginning of what I call 'The Software Age'.  Today, every engineer I interview must answer the following question: "What are the three greatest innovations in computers since von Neumann?" Most people say software. A few mention transistors or semiconductors. There are no wrong answers.

My favorite right answers are index register, priority interrupt, and the stack. You will notice, I did not include the cache memory (see Mukashi). Lately, in reply, I have heard the question, "Who is von... uh, who?"

John von Neumann (original name Johann) was born December 3, 1903 in Budapest, Hungary. He died of cancer on February 8, 1957 inWashington, D.C. He is described in Encyclopedia Britannica as follows: "Hungarian-born German-American mathematician who made important contributions in quantum physics, logic, meteorology, and computer science. His theory of games had a significant influence upon economics."

In 1926, von Neumann received a diploma in chemical engineering from Technische Hochschule in Zürich and the same year, he wrote his dissertation about set theory and received a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Budapest. He lectured at University of Berlin in 1926 through 1929 and at the University of Hamburg in 1929 and 1930. During this time he worked mainly on quantum physics and operator theory, which, because of his work, are now viewed as two aspects of the same subject.

In 1930 von Neumann was visiting lecturer at Princeton University; he was appointed professor in 1931; in 1932 he published important work on statistical mathematics and a book on quantum mechanics, The Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, which continues as a standard presentation of the subject; in 1933 he became a professor at the newly founded Institute for Advanced Study and kept that position for the rest of his life.

In the second half of the 1930s von Neumann's publications included work on what has become known as "Neumann algebras," one of the most powerful tools in the study of quantum physics and from which emerged "continuous geometry."

According to the Britannica, "About 20 of von Neumann's 150 papers are in physics; the rest are distributed more or less evenly among pure mathematics (mainly set theory, logic, topological group, measure theory, ergodic theory, operator theory, and continuous geometry) and applied mathematics (statistics, numerical analysis, shock waves, flow problems, hydrodynamics, aerodynamics, ballistics, problems of detonation, meteorology, and two nonclassical aspects of applied mathematics, games and computers). His publications show a break from pure to applied research around 1940. During World War II, he was much in demand as a consultant to the armed forces and to civilian agencies. His two main contributions were his espousal of the implosion method for bringing nuclear fuel to explosion and his participation in the development of the hydrogen bomb."

As mentioned above, von Neumann's theory of games was based largely on the "minimax theorem," which he stated in 1928 and later elaborated with another of his sponsors, Oskar Morgenstern, publishing in 1944 Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.

In computer theory, von Neumann did much of the pioneering work in logical design, in the problem of obtaining reliable answers from a machine with unreliable components, the function of "memory," machine imitation of "randomness," and the problem of constructing automata that can reproduce their own kind.

What was the secret of John von Neumann's success? Many experts will answer, "the axiomatic method," by which he got to the root of the matter by concentrating on the basic properties (axioms) from which all else follows. His axiomatization has left a permanent mark on the subject; moreover, according to those who worked alongside von Neumann, his insights were illuminating and his statements precise. {Return}