A great Hungarian and a proud American scientist: his oeuvre is a Hungarikum

If you ask people in the streets of Hungary about János Neumann, it is likely that they will know his name and will answer: „he is the inventor of the computer”. This is a laurel that was never sought by the scientist, who was born in Budapest, in a house at the corner of Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Street and Báthori Street in 1903, and as a “wonder child” he graduated at the Fasori Evangelical Secondary Grammar School among László Rátz’ students, to become a chemical engineer, and later an internationally renowned mathematician, the Man of the twentieth century.

Many people searched in many registers who John von Neumann (János Neumann) really was, from scientific informing works to significant technical theses. His legacy is unevadable for mathematicians, physicians, computer scientists and even for meteorologists – his ideas fructified the quantum theory, the game theory and nuclear researches as well.

A stunning book and film were made about his ill-fated English contemporary Alan Turing, with the title The Imitation Game; we can affirm resolutely that Neumann’s life also deserves the wide-screen.

Eisenhowerrel

Gábor Dénes’ documentary film that asked also his peers, the memoir (The Martian’s Daughter) of his daughter Marina von Neumann Whitman and the romantic biography by István Wisinger (A Mind for Eternity) presented a good-humoured, colourful personality and an epochal genius, who is loveable despite his contradictions.
The history of the computer is so interlaced that it would be too simplifying to name one man as its “father”. However, if you look at the connection network (a “punch-card Facebook”) of the scientists of the 1940s, you can see Neumann being in the focus beside other names like John Vincent Atanasoff, Presper Eckert, John Mauchly and Herman Goldstine.
From the legendary moment, when John von Neumann and mathematician Herman Goldstine – who worked on the ENIAC electronic calculator - bumped into one another at the railway station of Aberdeen, Neumann became interested in the first electron-tube calculators that were being built, because he recognised that thousands of man-hours could be saved with these machines and they could solve mathematical challenges that traditional methods could not.
The principles written in his study of 1945 (First draft on the report of EDVAC) that summarised the experiences of building the computer EDVAC, are called Neumann Principles, which determined the operation and development of the later modern stored-program computers, until the personal computers and smartphones.
The IAS machine that was constructed under his leadership is considered the first modern computer by many people. The machine was built between 1945 and 1951 by the engineering of John von Neumann and Julian Bigelow.

 IAS

It was inaugurated in 1952. After the ceremony, John von Neumann organised a party – in accordance with his bohemian habits – and its highlight was an ice model of the computer. The electron tubes were replaced with drawing pins in the model, and they started falling down as the ice melted.

Neumann’s daughter remembers: “… finally entropy triumphed and the computer melted into a puddle. The fate of the ice computer symbolised well the fate of the IAS computer later on. Today, there is a fitness club and a day nursery in the building of the IAS computer. The machine itself gathers dust on the “attic” of the National Museum of American History, though billions of its descendants “form our every days”.

John von Neumann thought that there would be a dozen computers maximum, and could not imagine “in his wildest dreams” that billions would use computers. “And adults were going to rage about their children sitting in front of the screen all day long and playing. Although, my father would not have despised computer games, as he loved playing as a child.” – Marina von Neumann Whitman closes her excursus on the topic.

Győző Kovács, one of the pathfinders of Hungarian informatics, held an exciting intimate lecture about the family tree of the Neumann-principle computers on Hacktivity. 

László Kutor have recently found the IAS computer that “gathers dust on the attic” in the USA, and introduced it in a video.

The personal belongings of Baron János Neumann of Margitta – his American name is John von Neumann – are presented at the computer science museum of the Neumann Computer Society in Szeged, where you can see an American newspaper page from 1957 as well: the obituary of John von Neumann and that of the former governor Miklós Horthy are next to one another – fatal coincidence drifted the two death announcements side by side.

The museum was inaugurated by Neumann’s daughter Marina von Neumann Whitman in 2013.

John von Neumann settled down in the United States before the WW 2, and became an outstanding figure of the local public life and science. His motherland is also proud of his oeuvre that got listed among the Hungarikums due to the petition of the Neumann Society. In the museum of the Neumann Society, we present a line of showcases about his life, written by Győző Kovács, and make it accessible also for the researchers of the MaNDA database now.

John von Neumann was not pessimist, but a “realistic optimist”, who believed in development and that future has huge opportunities in store for “patient, resilient, intelligent” people. One has to use and cultivate science even in times of climate changes, pandemics and information dump. How did Neumann put it? “Technologies are always constructive and useful directly or indirectly. However, their consequences may increase instability.”


Gábor Képes
the senior fellow of the
John von Neumann Computer Society

 

Translated by Zita Aknai

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