How the information age really began

Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing are all celebrated as computer pioneers, but the name of John von Neumann, a brilliant Hungarian-American mathematician once nearly as well known in America as Albert Einstein, is more likely to elicit blank looks than knowing nods.

While the ENIAC was born as a machine of war, built for a single task, he understood that the future lay in a greatly more flexible device that could be easily reprogrammed. More importantly, von Neumann saw more clearly than anyone on the ENIAC team — and perhaps more clearly than anyone in the world — the best way to structure such a machine.

The result of his musings, First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC, would become the most influential document in the history of computing. ‘Today, it is considered the birth certificate of modern computers,’ says computer scientist Wolfgang Coy. Curiously, von Neumann was men- tally prepared for this cutting-edge contribution to computing by his early abstruse mathematical work on set theory.