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John von Neumann, EDVAC, and the IAS Machine (linuxvoice.com)
34 points by benev on June 23, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 9 comments

If anyone wants a bit more detail and color on this story, I recommend "Turing's Cathedral" by George Dyson. I saw it in a bookstore last year and picked it up. Was quite pleased to get more background on these seminal characters in computing history and was astounded to see much came from this group, prompted by their utter conviction that it was paramount for the US to get hydrogen bombs before the USSR (most of them: the book touches tangentially on that debate).

Also impressed by how much they did with so little. For example, many of the first fusion particle simulations were one-dimensional on a radial axis from the center of the reaction. An infinitesimal sliver of the whole thing: just a serial line of particles.

Edit: George Dyson, not Freeman.

It is interesting that the man who invented the computer was the man who needed it the least. He had eidetic memory. He was able to compute infinite sums in his head. His vast intelligence was not crippling; he made huge contributions across many fields of science and mathematics and still managed to get married twice. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_von_Neumann

Does anyone know of someone alive today that is even comparable to Von Neumann?

Not very Von Neumann was a genius in every single form of the word. The only historical figures I feel safe comparing him to is Sir Isaac Newton (which is a stretch Newton is really beyond compare).

Von Neumann also got the priviledge later in his life to work with Einstien and Kurt Gödel while in New Jersey.

The joke about infinite sums is one of Von Neumann's associates asked him

>"Two trains are 20 miles apart on the same track heading towards each other at 10 miles per hour, on a collision course. At the same time, a bee takes off from the nose of one train at 20 miles per hour, towards the other train. As soon as the bee reaches the other train, it bangs huwey and heads off at 20 miles per hour back towards the first train. It continues to do this until the trains collide, killing the bee.

>How far will the bee have traveled?"

This is called a mathematicians trap. And its similiar to XKCD 356 (Nerd Snipping) [2]. There is a simple eloquent algebraic way to solve the problem, but it requires some insite. And there is a complex way involving summing an infinite series. Normally mathematicians end up preforming a very vast complex infinite series sum. [1]

When Von Neumann was asked the question it took him about 10 seconds to respond.

The associate who asked him stated, "Oh you must have heard the joke before."

To which Von Neumann responded, "No I just solved for the sum of the infinite series."

[1] http://thesciencepundit.blogspot.com/2006/07/john-von-neuman...

[2] https://xkcd.com/356/

> Not very Von Neumann was a genius in every single form of the word. The only historical figures I feel safe comparing him to is Sir Isaac Newton (which is a stretch Newton is really beyond compare).

Newton is overrated, and has been for too long.

The mathematician Greg Chaitin thinks that Newton's contemporary Liebniz is superior in intellect.

I like your comparison of Von Neumann and Newton. I think there are two other modern men who contributed as much, Gauss and Einstein. Each of these took Newton's work in different directions; one in mathematics and one in physics. It is amazing how much we own those three scientists.

Von Neumann did not invent the computer. ENIAC was invented by John W. Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert Jr., and it was the first general purpose electronic computer. The first computer (as decided in the contentious Honeywell vs. Sperry Rand case) was the Atanasoff-Berry Computer from Iowa. There's also the Konrad Zuse's Z3, who invented the first general purpose electromechanical computer, several years before ENIAC.

I'm deeply interested in how he was able to master Latin and Greek at such an early age. From memory I recall a quote about him having read pretty much all of Greek and Roman history from the original authors.

Greek is a language with such a frighteningly large vocabulary I don't understand how he would be able to remember every word he ever looked up.

Unfortunately it seems autobiographers are more interested in his scientific accomplishments and gloss over these facts in the by-and-by. I'd be very interested in knowing just how he learned and mastered language.

For those who are interested in the history of computing/computers/informatics, there is a mailing list (http://www.sigcis.org/node/19) for/by historians and enthusiasts on this topic. It is a quit list, but now and then something interesting pops up.

Previous posting, albeit with only one comment by myself: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7924533

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