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Historical Figures In Engineering: John von Neumann

  • by: Jack Terry
  • On: 8, Jul 2019
2 min read

John von Neumann was a 20th Century mathematician, computer scientist, and physicist, whose pioneering work was fundamental in the development of digital computers. He was well-respected in the scientific community, and contributed much in a relatively short amount of time.

Who Was John von Neumann?

Born in Budapest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1903, he was a child prodigy, with a talent for mathematics. By the age of 8 he was adept at calculus, capable of memorizing complex numbers and even entire pages of the phone book.

He received his PhD in mathematics by the age of 22, while simultaneously earning a degree in Chemical Engineering. He moved to the United States in 1930, and in 1933 he was one of the first four scientists selected to join the Institute for Advanced Study. He was the youngest professor there, frequently mistaken for a graduate student. He initiated the Electronic Computer Project at the initiative, having a wide variety of disciplines to draw on.

John von Neumann’s Contribution to Technology and Engineering:

Game Theory

He pioneered the field of game theory as a mathematical discipline in the 1920s, publishing The Theory of Parlor Games. He continued his work in the field with another book on game theory, Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour, published in 1944.

The Manhattan Project

During the war, he worked on hydrodynamics and ballistics, as well as eventually working on the Manhattan project. He coined the term kiloton as a measure of explosive force. He was also integral in the development in the concept of mutually assured destruction, in an attempt to deter nuclear war.

For his work, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Merit in 1947.

Quantum Mechanics

He was also the first person to establish a mathematical framework for quantum mechanics. He wrote Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics in 1932, in which he outlined the concept of quantum logic, a new framework which allowed for complex problems to be considered in new ways.


After the war, he became interested in the idea of an electric computer. At that time, the concept of software didn’t exist, computers were specifically programmed to solve one problem.

Two of his most famous works were published posthumously, The Computer and the Brain, and Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata.

The Computer and the Brain was largely compiled of lectures he had been invited to give by Yale University. Illness prevented him from giving them, but he did manage to complete them before he died. The books describe similarities between computers and the human brain, suggesting directions for future research.

In Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata, he outlined the theory of self-reproducing machines. This introduced the concept of a universal constructor, a machine which could replicate itself. His analysis of replication predates the discovery of DNA, and provided an invaluable framework for future endeavours in the field. His design for the world’s first self-replicating computer program is widely regarded as the first ever computer virus, making him the father of computer virology.

John von Neumann was a towering intellect in the early 20th Century, changing how mathematics was though of by the scientific community.

Read about other pioneers in the field of computing, Alan Turing and Ada Lovelace.  

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