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May 17, 2011 / Dr. Toad

The von Neumann architecture of our digital world

I like hearing about the olden days of computers. It makes me imagine a world (which apparently existed for real some sixty years ago) in which people wrote each other ten-page letters, pen on paper, and sent them airmail.

So I listened to George Dyson, a science historian, today as he talked about the early years of computers as actual, physically realized devices. By the way, I was too lazy to trek out to UW for that talk, so I saw it streamed online. In a little while, I imagine, it should also be available archived online, so you can see and hear him too.

Von Neumann ArchitectureHe talked mostly about John von Neumann, a Hungarian-first-generation-American mathematician who we think essentially gave us that physically realized computing device. Most modern computers have “the von Neumann architecture”: a central controller, a modular design, numerically-addressed memory, instructions or commands stored in memory as numbers, a binary calculus for both data and code, a central clock, you know. The computer. It was first implemented all in one place in the “IAS machine” at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) at Princeton, under von Neumann’s direction.

Here are some things I learned about the history of the computer today.

Leviathan Book CoverThat great minds think far ahead of their times: Francis Bacon wrote that five bits (he didn’t use that word) would be sufficient to encode the entire alphabet, Tomas Hobbes imagined an organism containing all of humanity which he called the Internet Leviathan, and also wrote about a recursive rational procedure by which you could do any computation, Gottfried Leibniz invented binary calculus and also imagined a machine that would perform it by shifting around black and white marbles.

Selectron Tube


That the IAS at Princeton was instrumental in getting many Jewish mathematicians out of Europe in the 1930s, often by offering them ridiculously low salaries ($300 per year) which were nonetheless enough for immigration officials to let them in.

That the first plug-and-play memory was a giant vacuum tube called the Selectron, which contained 4 kilobits, but which ultimately wasn’t used.

That a woman whose Greek name I unfortunately didn’t write down and now have forgotten was von Neumann’s secretary at the IAS, that she was originally hired to work on the ENIAC (first American general-purpose computer) project when she was 16 years old, and that she is still living in LA, and that her daughter recently got her her first computer, a Mac laptop.

That there were territorial disputes at the IAS at the time and that computer guys were accused of stealing sugar from the historians, and that everybody despised engineering and electrical work there, in that place of Einstein and Goedel.

That you can find all the modern attitudes towards computers in logs from the late 1940s: debugging problems, hardware and software engineers blaming problems on each other, lack of documentation.

That Nils Barricelli on the team worked on artificial life in the early 1950s and produced something that he called “not life, but not a simulation of life either”, a virtual organism living in a virtual world, as well as the first ever computer virus.

Ah, the good old days of punch-cards and vacuum tubes and women programmers.

Von Neumann died in 1957 without glimpsing the new world order which his revolution unleashed.


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