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John von Neumann: MANIAC's Father

Inventing the computer that helped the U.S. win the Cold War was only one of this mathematician's many accomplishments

In early 1956, Marina von Neumann, daughter of world-renowned mathematician John von Neumann, brought her fiancé, Robert Whitman, home to Princeton, N.J., to meet her famous father. The eminent computer pioneer decided to show his future son-in-law the MANIAC (mathematical analyzer, numeral integrator, and computer) -- the legendary machine von Neumann had built in the six years after World War II. The most powerful and accurate computer ever designed to that point, MANIAC helped the U.S. beat the Soviet Union in the race for the hydrogen bomb in 1952 and was a forerunner of the modern computer age.

Outside the door to the Electronic Computer Project building at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), where the computer was housed, von Neumann fumbled for the right key. "He went through all his keys," recalls Marina Whitman, today a professor of business administration and public policy at the University of Michigan. "He said, 'Here's my house keys, here's the key to the Swiss Institute of Technology from 1929, here's this one and that one.' Of course we never got it open, and Bob never did get to see the computer."