14 Interesting Facts About John Von Neumann

John Von Neumann (December 28, 1903 – February 8, 1957) was a world-class mathematician who emigrated to the US from Hungary, and became a citizen in 1937. His contributions were wide-ranging, not only to mathematics but also to a number of fields in science such as computer science, physics, economics, meteorology, theory of automata and, last but not least, to game theory.

Von Neumann was so bright that Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner would say, "only he was fully awake." He had "the fastest mind" that economist Paul Samuelson had ever encountered and was "the cleverest man in the world" according to head of Britain's National Physical Laboratory, as noted by Daniel Yergin in "The Quest."

It is no exaggeration to state that whichever scientific field he worked in, what Neumann accomplished in each can be considered a lifetime's work. 

Here are some facts to learn about one of the greatest minds of the 20th century:

1. John Von Neumann was born Neumann Janos Lajos.

He was born in Budapest, Kingdom of Hungary, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to a wealthy, acculturated and non-observant Jewish parents and was the eldest of three sons. 

In 1913, Emperor Franz Joseph elevated his father to the nobility for his service to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Neumann family thus acquired the hereditary appellation Margittai, meaning of Marghita. Neumann János became Margittai Neumann János (John Neumann of Marghita), which he later changed to the German Johann von Neumann.

2. Von Neumann's prodigiousness was apparent from a young age. 

By 8 years old, he could divide two eight-digit numbers in his head. By 19, he had published two major mathematical papers, and by 22 he had a Ph.D. in mathematics with minors in experimental physics and chemistry.

3. He married twice.

Photo: Klara (John's second wife), Inverse (dog) and von Neumann

On New Year's Day in 1930, von Neumann married Mariette Kövesi, who had studied economics at Budapest University. Von Neumann and Mariette had one child, a daughter, Marina, born in 1935. The couple divorced in 1937.

In October 1938, von Neumann married Klara Dan, whom he had met during his last trips back to Budapest prior to the outbreak of World War II.

4. Von Neumann was offered a lifetime professorship on the faculty of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study.

The Hungarian-American joined Princeton University in 1930, and in 1933 he was offered a lifetime professorship when that institution's plan to appoint Hermann Weyl fell through. He remained a mathematics professor at Princeton until his death in 1957, although he had announced his intention to resign and become a professor at large at the University of California.

He was remembered as a mediocre teacher, prone to write quickly and erase the blackboard before students could copy what he had written.

5. He was a loud and sociable character.

Photo: Von Neumann wearing funny hat

He sometimes annoyed colleagues, including Einstein, with his habit of blasting German marching music on his office gramophone. He did some of his best work in noisy, chaotic environments, and once admonished his wife for preparing a quiet study for him to work in. He never used it, preferring the couple's living room with its television playing loudly.

Evenings at von Neumanns' became a famous thing in Princeton - for his remarkable cordiality and hospitality. According to E. Wigner and S. Ulam, he was an extremely open person. He was ready to help anyone who needed advice. His good sense of humor and remarkable gift of storytelling made him being adored even by strangers. He was never pompous, always driven by his flawless logic and very profound understanding of morality.

Despite his acknowledged outstanding intellectual capabilities, he was free from arrogance and he was very interested in other people.

6. Neumann's mastery of English was excellent.

For that matter, so was his mastery of Hungarian, German, and French. His English betrayed a Middle European accent that was invariably described as charming, never harsh. He had trouble pronouncing 'th' and 'r,' and pronounced 'integer' with a hard 'g' - this being a von Neumann trademark.

7. He became a Princeton legend.

It was said that he played practical jokes on Einstein, could recite verbatim books that he had read years earlier, and could edit assembly-language computer code in his head. 

8. Von Neumann's closest friend in the United States was mathematician Stanislaw Ulam.

Photo: John von Neumann, Richard Feynman, and Stanislaw Ulam at Los Alamos, 1940s

"They would spend hours on end gossiping and giggling, swapping Jewish jokes, and drifting in and out of mathematical talk," a later friend of Ulam's, Gian-Carlo Rota, said. 

When von Neumann was dying in hospital, every time Ulam would visit he would come prepared with a new collection of jokes to cheer up his friend.

9. He was not a stereotypical mathematician.

He was known as a wit, bon vivant, and aggressive driver—his frequent auto accidents led to one Princeton intersection being dubbed “von Neumann corner.”

10. During World War II, Von Neumann would join Einstein and other leading scientists in developing the atomic bomb in the Manhattan project.

Photo: J. Robert Oppenheimer and John Von Neumann

In late 1943 von Neumann began work on the Manhattan Project at the invitation of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Von Neumann was an expert in the nonlinear physics of hydrodynamics and shock waves, an expertise that he had already applied to chemical explosives in the British war effort.

Von Neumann participated in the selection of a Japanese target, arguing against bombing the Imperial Palace, Tokyo - The Fat Man atomic bomb, dropped on the Japanese port of Nagasaki.

For his wartime services, von Neumann was awarded the Navy Distinguished Civilian Service Award in July 1946, and the Medal for Merit in October 1946.

11. He elaborated the principles that lay the foundation stones for the operation of computers in 1945.

Photo: Von Neumann architecture

Commonly-known as Neumann principles, these principles determine the operation of computers even today:

  • storage and control of a programme and data storage
  • completely electronic computer
  • application of the binary system
  • use of a central processing unit 

Today, all information and communication technology devices from desktop computers, laptops or smart phones to industrial applications, without exceptions, are based on the same architecture known as Neumann principles. 

12. Von Neumann modified ENIAC to run as a stored-program machine.

In the postwar years, von Neumann spent increasing time as a consultant to government and industry. Starting in 1944, he contributed important ideas to the U.S. Army’s hard-wired ENIAC computer, designed by J. Presper Eckert, Jr., and John W. Mauchly. 

He then lobbied to build an improved computer at the Institute for Advanced Study. The IAS machine, which began operating in 1951, used binary arithmetic—ENIAC had used decimal numbers—and shared the same memory for code and data, a design that greatly facilitated the “conditional loops” at the heart of all subsequent coding. Von Neumann’s publications on computer design (1945–51) created friction with Eckert and Mauchly, who sought to patent their contributions, and led to the independent construction of similar machines around the world. This established the merit of a single-processor, stored-program computer—the widespread architecture now known as a von Neumann machine. 

13. He was diagnosed with what was either bone or pancreatic cancer at age 51.

Von Neumann was afraid of dying so he invited a Roman Catholic priest, Father Anselm Strittmatter, O.S.B., to visit him for consultation, although he was known as being completely agnostic. 

Of this deathbed conversion, Morgenstern told Heims, "He was of course completely agnostic all his life, and then he suddenly turned Catholic—it doesn't agree with anything whatsoever in his attitude, outlook and thinking when he was healthy."

Father Strittmatter recalled that even after his conversion, von Neumann did not receive much peace or comfort from it, as he still remained terrified of death.

He died at age 53 on February 8, 1957, at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., under military security lest he reveal military secrets while heavily medicated. He was buried at Princeton Cemetery in Princeton, Mercer County, New Jersey.

14. In 1956 von Neumann wrote his, posthumously published, book The Computer and the Brain.

The book discusses how the brain can be viewed as a computing machine. It's nature is speculative, but discusses several important differences between brains and computers of his day (such as processing speed and parallelism), as well as suggesting directions for future research. Memory is one of the central themes in his book.

Take a moment to celebrate some of the amazing achievements from people who had virtually no education at all.

He isn’t the one to let something like being the fourth richest man on the planet stop him from getting a good deal.

There is no Nobel Prize for mathematics, but there are equivalents...