John von Neumann (/vɒn ˈnɔɪmən/; Hungarian: Neumann János (Hungarian pronunciation: [ˈnɒjmɒn ˈjaːnoʃ ˈlɒjoʃ]; December 28, 1903 – February 8, 1957) was a Hungarian-American pure and applied mathematician, physicist, inventor, and polymath. He made major contributions to a number of fields, including mathematics (foundations of mathematics, functional analysis, ergodic theory, geometry, topology, and numerical analysis), physics (quantum mechanics, hydrodynamics, fluid dynamics and quantum statistical mechanics), economics (game theory), computing (Von Neumann architecture, linear programming, self-replicating machines, stochastic computing), and statistics. He was a pioneer of the application of operator theory to quantum mechanics, in the development of functional analysis, a principal member of the Manhattan Project and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (as one of the few originally appointed), and a key figure in the development of game theory and the concepts of cellular automata, the universal constructor and the digital computer. He published 150 papers in his life; 60 in pure mathematics, 20 in physics, and 60 in applied mathematics. His last work, an unfinished manuscript written while in the hospital, was later published in book form as The Computer and the Brain. Von Neumann's mathematical analysis of the structure of self-replication preceded the discovery of the structure of DNA. In a short list of facts about his life he submitted to the National Academy of Sciences, he stated "The part of my work I consider most essential is that on quantum mechanics, which developed in Göttingen in 1926, and subsequently in Berlin in 1927–1929. Also, my work on various forms of operator theory, Berlin 1930 and Princeton 1935–1939; on the ergodic theorem, Princeton, 1931–1932." During World War II he worked on the Manhattan Project with J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, developing the mathematical models behind the explosive lenses used in the implosion-type nuclear weapon. After the war, served on the General Advisory Committee of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, and later as one of its commissioners. He was a consultant to a number of organizations, including the United States Air Force, the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Along with theoretical physicist Edward Teller, mathematician Stanislaw Ulam, and others, he worked out key steps in the nuclear physics involved in thermonuclear reactions and the hydrogen bomb.
Von Neumann was born Neumann János Lajos (in Hungarian the family name comes first), Hebrew name Yonah, in Budapest, Kingdom of Hungary, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to wealthy Jewish parents of the Haskalah. He was the eldest of three children. He had two younger brothers: Michael, born in 1907, and Nicholas, who was born in 1911. His father, Neumann Miksa (Max Neumann) was a banker, who held a doctorate in law. He had moved to Budapest from Pécs at the end of the 1880s. Miksa's father and grandfather were both born in Ond (now part of the town of Szerencs), Zemplén County, northern Hungary. John's mother was Kann Margit (Margaret Kann); her parents were Jakab Kann and Katalin Meisels. Three generations of the Kann family lived in spacious apartments above the Kann-Heller offices in Budapest; von Neumann's family occupied an 18-room apartment on the top floor. In 1913, his father was elevated to the nobility for his service to the Austro-Hungarian Empire by Emperor Franz Joseph. The Neumann family thus acquired the hereditary appellation Margittai, meaning of Marghita. The family had no connection with the town; the appellation was chosen in reference to Margaret, as was those chosen coat of arms depicting three marguerites. Neumann János became Margittai Neumann János (John Neumann of Marghita), which he later changed to the German Johann von Neumann. Formal schooling did not start in Hungary until the age of ten. Instead, governesses taught von Neumann, his brothers and his cousins. Max believed that knowledge of languages other than Hungarian was essential, so the children were tutored in English, French, German and Italian. By the age of 8, von Neumann was familiar with differential and integral calculus, but he was particularly interested in history, reading his way through Wilhelm Oncken's Allgemeine Geschichte in Einzeldarstellungen. A copy was contained in a private library Max purchased. One of the rooms in the apartment was converted into a library and reading room, with bookshelves from ceiling to floor. Von Neumann entered the Lutheran Fasori Evangelikus Gimnázium in 1911. This was one of the best schools in Budapest, part of a brilliant education system designed for the elite. Under the Hungarian system, children received all their education at the one gymnasium. Despite being run by the Lutheran Church, the majority of its pupils were Jewish. The school system produced a generation noted for intellectual achievement, that included Theodore von Kármán (b. 1881), George de Hevesy (b. 1885), Leó Szilárd (b. 1898), Eugene Wigner (b. 1902), Edward Teller (b. 1908), and Paul Erdős (b. 1913). Collectively, they were sometimes known as Martians. Wigner was a year ahead of von Neumann at the Lutheran School. When asked why the Hungary of his generation had produced so many geniuses, Wigner, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963, replied that von Neumann was the only genius. Although Max insisted von Neumann attend school at the grade level appropriate to his age, he agreed to hire private tutors to give him advanced instruction in those areas in which he had displayed an aptitude. At the age of 15, he began to study advanced calculus under the renowned analyst Gábor Szegő. On their first meeting, Szegő was so astounded with the boy's mathematical talent that he was brought to tears. Some of von Neumann's instant solutions to the problems in calculus posed by Szegő, sketched out on his father's stationery, are still on display at the von Neumann archive in Budapest. By the age of 19, von Neumann had published two major mathematical papers, the second of which gave the modern definition of ordinal numbers, which superseded Georg Cantor's definition. At the conclusion of his education at the gymnasium, von Neumann sat for and won the Eötvös Prize, a national prize for mathematics. Since there were few posts in Hungary for mathematicians, and those were not well-paid, his father wanted von Neumann to follow him into industry and therefore invest his time in a more financially useful endeavor than mathematics. So it was decided that the best career path was to become a chemical engineer. This was not something that von Neumann had much knowledge of, so it was arranged for him to take a two-year non-degree course in chemistry at the University of Berlin, after which he sat the entrance exam to the prestigious ETH Zurich, which he passed in September 1923. At the same time, von Neumann also entered Pázmány Péter University in Budapest, as a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics. For his thesis, he chose to produce an axiomatization of Cantor's set theory. He passed his final examinations for his Ph.D. soon after graduating from ETH Zurich in 1926. He then went to the University of Göttingen on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to study mathematics under David Hilbert.