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."

Von Neumann's absent-mindedness -- like that of his tutor, IAS colleague, and friend Albert Einstein -- may have been the only glitch in a singular intellect that changed the course of history. Born in Hungary in 1903, von Neumann was a child prodigy whose impressive tricks were signs of genius. It's said he could multiply eight-digit numbers in his head as a youngster and regularly beat adults at kriegspiel (a sister game to chess). By the time he was 23, he had earned a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Budapest, as well a degree in chemical engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.


  Ironically, chemical engineering was one of the few subjects that held no interest for von Neumann throughout his life. From his perch at the Universities of Berlin and Hamburg and then, after 1933, at the IAS, he broke ground in three major fields -- mathematics, quantum physics, and computer science.

He had not only an unusual range of interests but a remarkable gift for producing work of almost immediate practical value. The mathematical "game theory" he published in 1928 became the defining framework for viewing the Cold War as a "zero-sum" relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. As a member of the Manhattan Project, his computations regarding the implosion rate of plutonium headed off several false starts by the nuclear scientists at Los Alamos who developed the atom bomb.

Then there was his real legacy -- the recognition that computing power could be used for jobs beyond solving simple linear problems such as adding or subtracting, that it could in fact tackle complex mathematical problems involving several variables. The nascent field of computer science commanded little respect in 1946, and when von Neumann announced that he wanted to build his computer at the IAS, his colleagues turned up their noses -- the theorists at Princeton's landmark think tank didn't build things.


  Eventually, though, von Neumann secured funding, mostly from the U.S. military. That was only fitting, since his experience at Los Alamos had given him the computational background he needed to envision the potential power of an "electronic brain," as the concept was often referred to at the time.

IBM (IBM ) subsequently hired von Neumann as a part-time consultant, and, using his concepts, developed the first mass-produced computer in 1953: the IBM 650 magnetic drum calculator. Big Blue sold 450 of the machines that year, and by 1961 its share of the computer market stood at more than 80%.

Von Neumann died of cancer in 1957, when Marina was just 21. Today, while she sometimes thinks of what might have been had he lived longer, she feels lucky that her parents made a pact when they divorced: Marina would go live with her father when it was time for high school. As she puts it: "Basically, my mother felt that anyone lucky enough to be John von Neumann's daughter really ought to get the chance to know him."

As part of its 75th anniversary celebration, BusinessWeek is presenting a series of weekly profiles for the greatest innovators of the past 75 years, from science to government. BusinessWeek Online is joining in by adding more online-only profiles of The Great Innovators. In late September, 2004, BusinessWeek will publish a special commemorative issue on Innovation

By Mike Brewster in New York

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