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Von Neumann, John (János)

memory program mathematics stored

[ noy man] (1903–57) Hungarian–US mathematician: suggested the concept of the stored-program computer.

Born in Budapest the son of a Jewish banker, Von Neumann was a mathematical prodigy as a child and became one of the most eminent mathematicians of his day. Educated at the Universities of Budapest, Berlin and Zürich, he moved to the USA in 1930.

Aside from his work in mathematics (he was professor of mathematics at Princeton 1933–55) Von Neumann is principally remembered for his contributions, during and after the Second World War, to the development of electronic computers. He is widely credited with the concept of the ‘stored-program computer’, whose two essential components are a memory in which to store information and a control unit capable of organizing the transfers between the different ‘registers’ in memory in accordance with a program also stored in memory. All modern computers work on this principle, and are sometimes called ‘Von Neumann machines’. The credit for the work (which was carried out in wartime secrecy) is now recognized not to be entirely his, however, and ought more properly to be shared with others in the development team.

He also participated in the American atomic bomb project (the Manhattan Project) and, together with others, developed the ‘high explosive lens’ that was essential to its success. In later years he became a leading proponent of nuclear power.

He founded the theory of games in 1926: its focus is to model strategies leading to success in situations involving chance or free choices, which by 1944 he applied in economics and which has since been used widely in this and other social sciences, and in military applications.

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