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September 10th, 2013

Von NEUMANNSometimes the people we honor as first and foremost in their fields weren’t really the first, and aren’t always foremost, either. The father of the automobile, Henry Ford, was years behind other pioneers. The father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, didn’t make the critical breakthroughs that led to the weapon’s success. But if there’s anyone who really deserves the title “father of computing”—besides the brilliant Alan Turing and the amazing Charles Babbage, who have their supporters for the title—it’s John von Neumann.

Born in 1903 in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, von Neumann was a child prodigy who earned his Ph.D. in mathematics at 22—and earned a diploma in chemical engineering the same year. Before the age of 25, von Neumann had been the youngest teacher at the University of Berlin and published more than a dozen papers in major journals. In 1930, he moved to the U.S.

Before Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs, and the insanely great Macintosh and iMac computers, there was Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, Albert Einstein, and the University of Pennsylvania’s historic EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer).

The Number-Crunching Visionary

Einstein and von Neumann were among the first few faculty members of the Institute for Advanced Studies, and von Neumann remained there from its inception in 1933 until his death, even as he continued working on EDVAC and other projects. In 1945, von Neumann described what later became known as “von Neumann Architecture” when he published a set of incomplete notes as First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC. This foundational characteristic of computing—that memory can store and manipulate both sequenced instructions and data—was one of many von Neumann breakthroughs. It’s why we have iPad rentals, smartphones, and robotic dogs today.

Von Neumann and Institute of Advanced Studies

The von Neumann Architecture became the early, de facto standard for computing, and although there are now more advanced ones, “the original” is still in use. From punch-card input and room-size computers, via big beige boxes and CRTs, to today’s LCD touchscreen monitor rental and potent laptops, von Neumann’s fingerprints are all over the place—and not just in computing. The fields of physics, mathematics, game theory, economics, strategic thinking, logic, and quantum mechanics owe von Neumann big thanks, as well. So do we all, as von Neumann was also a deep thinker but, unlike Einstein, was not troubled by the nuclear genie escaping the bottle, and did not fear an Armageddon.

Died Too Young

“Can We Survive Technology?” was the title of a Fortune magazine article that von Neumann wrote in 1955. (His answer: “Yes.”) Since he knew science and technology could be put to both good and evil ends, he said that solving future problems (meaning today’s problems) would require “patience, flexibility [and] intelligence.” Invited to give the Silliman Memorial Lectures at Yale, he died before he could do so, in 1957, aged just 53. Published posthumously by Yale University Press in 1958 as The Computer and the Brain, von Neumann’s Silliman presentation compares “computing machines” with the human brain. Various notes and manuscripts that von Neumann kept over the years were organized and edited by his EDVAC colleague, Arthur Burks, and published in 1966 as Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata. It is read widely today.

John von Neumann was a brilliant and original thinker, and we honor his many contributions. Without him, we would quite simply not have the problem-solving, leading-edge render farms and mass storage devices that help you get your work done. Whether you need tools, tech, or expertise, call us at (877) 266-7725, send a message, or visit the Quick Rental Quote page.

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