John von Neumann: Early life, discoveries, and accomplishments

“If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.” John von Neumann

John von Neumann was born in Budapest. He was the eldest of the three sons of a wealthy and cultured Jewish banking family. He took lessons from a private teacher until he was 10 years old, and then he started studying at the Lutheran High School in the capital of Hungary. His remarkable ability was evident from an early age; he had an almost photographic memory and the ability to quickly perform arithmetic calculations in his mind.

Who was John von Neumann?

At the age of 18, he enrolled in the mathematics department of the University of Budapest but spent most of his time in Berlin getting to know the European scientific elite. He then started his doctorate at the University of Budapest, but also studied chemical engineering at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich, due to the insistence of his father, who wanted his son to have a professional education. In 1925, ETH gave him a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. In 1926, the University of Budapest gave him a Ph.D. in mathematics.

John von Neumann received the Rockefeller Scholarship from the University of Göttingen in Germany in 1926. The following year, he was appointed as a Privatdozent (faculty member) at the University of Berlin, making him the university’s youngest Privatdozent in its history. He conducted extensive research in the 1920s on mathematical logic, set theoryoperator theory, and quantum mechanics. In the 1930s, he became a guest professor at Princeton University, dividing his time between Berlin and Princeton for several years. However, he wanted a permanent position in the United States due to the deteriorating political situation in Europe.

This opportunity came from the newly established Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1933, which appointed me as a founding professor (the other professor was Albert Einstein). He became an American citizen in 1937. Von Neumann achieved fundamental results in institutional and applied mathematics at the Institute and also developed his game theory. Together with Oskar Morganstern, he wrote “The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior” in 1944. This book was a major step forward in the field of mathematical economics.

Wartime calculations and the first electronic computer

John von Neumann and J. Robert Oppenheimer, former director of the Manhattan Project, in front of the IAS machine in 1952.
John von Neumann and J. Robert Oppenheimer, former director of the Manhattan Project, in front of the IAS machine in 1952.

John von Neumann had a pleasant personality, great social skills, and brilliant political intelligence. When the United States entered World War II after the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, there was a huge increase in demand for consulting services. John von Neumann served in this field thanks to his adaptability, legendary mental abilities, and talent to solve complex math problems easily. In 1943, he turned his attention to war-related work, especially numerical computational problems.

Most importantly, he was a consultant to the Manhattan Project in Las Alamos. There, he consulted on implosion techniques to detonate the nuclear material in the center of the atomic bomb. Complex math system equations had to be solved numerically as part of this process, so he looked for the most advanced calculators he could find.

John von Neumann was also a consultant to the US Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. One of the lab’s main tasks was the production of ballistic charts and the founding of the first electronic computer, ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), which was developed by the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Due to technical and design limitations, Neumann’s calculations for the atomic bomb couldn’t be done on the ENIAC. Neumann and the group at Moore worked together to design EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer), which replaced ENIAC.

In June 1945, he summarized the group’s findings in his report, First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC. The report provided the logical definition of what is known as a “stored-program computer” that all subsequent computer developments would be based on. The computer was called by this name because both the program and the numbers were using the same electronic memory. This made the computer much more powerful and flexible because now a program could run its instructions without having to use cumbersome ways to program like plugboards, punched cards, or paper.

John von Neumann and the hydrogen bomb

In 1946, von Neumann returned to the Institute for Advanced Study, leading the construction of one of the first practical computers. With the advent of general-purpose computers, he began to be concerned less with numerical weather forecasting and more with philosophy, cybernetics, and automata. At the same time, he kept giving advice in Los Alamos about how to make the hydrogen bomb.

In 1954, President Eisenhower took over the Atomic Energy Commission. Here, he made an impact on science and military policy with an inclination toward war. Neumann was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1955, and he eventually died of this disease.

His last major competence was the preparation of the Silliman Conferences for Yale University, which were published in 1958 after his death under the title The Computer and the Brain. He died in 1957 at the age of 53.


  • Ayoub, Raymond George (2004). Musings Of The Masters: An Anthology Of Mathematical Reflections. Washington, D.C.: MAA. ISBN 978-0-88385-549-2. OCLC 56537093.
  • Blair, Clay, Jr. (February 25, 1957). “Passing of a Great Mind”Life. pp. 89–104.
  • Blume, Lawrence E. (2008). “Convexity”. In Durlauf, Steven N.; Blume, Lawrence E. (eds.). The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics (Second ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 225–226. doi:10.1057/9780230226203.0315. ISBN 978-0-333-78676-5.
  • Białynicki-Birula, Iwo; Białynicki-Birula, Iwona (2004). Modeling Reality: How Computers Mirror Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198531005.
  • Bronowski, Jacob (1974). The Ascent of Man. Boston: Little, Brown.
  • Dawson, John W., Jr. (1997). Logical Dilemmas: The Life and Work of Kurt Gödel. Wellesley, Massachusetts: A. K. Peters. ISBN 978-1-56881-256-4.
  • Dieudonné, J. (2008). “Von Neumann, Johann (or John)”. In Gillispie, C. C. (ed.). Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Vol. 14 (7th ed.). Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons. pp. 88–92 Gale Virtual Reference Library. ISBN 978-0-684-31559-1. OCLC 187313311.

By Bertie Atkinson

Bertie Atkinson is a history writer at Malevus. He writes about diverse subjects in history, from ancient civilizations to world wars. In his free time, he enjoys reading, watching Netflix, and playing chess.