John Von Neumann

vonNeumannVon Neumann’s interest in computers differed from that of his peers by his quickly perceiving the application of computers to applied mathematics for specific problems, rather than their mere application to the development of tables. During the war, von Neumann’s expertise in hydrodynamics, ballistics, meteorology, game theory, and statistics, was put to good use in several projects. This work led him to consider the use of mechanical devices for computation, and although the stories about von Neumann imply that his first computer encounter was with the ENIAC, in fact it was with Howard Aiken’s Harvard Mark I (ASCC) calculator. His correspondence in 1944 shows his interest with the work of not only Aiken but also the electromechanical relay computers of George Stibitz, and the work by Jan Schilt at the Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory at Columbia University.

By the latter years of World War II, von Neumann was playing the part of an executive management consultant, serving on several national committees, applying his amazing ability to rapidly see through problems to their solutions. Through this means he was also a conduit between groups of scientists who were otherwise shielded from each other by the requirements of secrecy. He brought together the needs of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (and the Manhattan Project) with the capabilities of firstly the engineers at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering who were building the ENIAC, and later his own work on building the IAS machine. Several “supercomputers” were built by National Laboratories as copies of his machine.

In the 1950’s von Neumann was employed as a consultant to IBM to review proposed and ongoing advanced technology projects. One day a week, von Neumann “held court” at 590 Madison Avenue, New York. On one of these occasions in 1954 he was confronted with the FORTRAN concept; John Backus remembered von Neumann being unimpressed and that he asked “why would you want more than machine language?” Frank Beckman, who was also present, recalled that von Neumann dismissed the whole development as “but an application of the idea of Turing’s `short code’.” Donald Gillies, one of von Neumann’s students at Princeton, and later a faculty member at the University of Illinois, recalled in the mid-1970’s that the graduates students were being “used” to hand assemble programs into binary for their early machine (probably the IAS machine). He took time out to build an assembler, but when von Neumann found out about it he was very angry, saying (paraphrased), “It is a waste of a valuable scientific computing instrument to use it to do clerical work.”

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