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Von Neumann Explains Computers, 1946

Jon von Neumann

John von Neumann published the earliest and most influential discussions of how to build electronic digital computers. His earliest known publication on computer design was actually a draft report he created in June, 1945, that was widely distributed among the infant community of computer developers. 

On May 15, 1946, von Neumann gave a detailed talk about the general principles of computer design. He was addressing the US Navy's Mathematical Computing Advisory Panel, a group that oversaw the Navy's computing R&D progams. Like the earlier draft, this talk was quickly transcribed, mimeographed, and distributed. The resulting paper was titled "The Principles of Large-Scale Computing Machines."

My father was about to be discharged from the Navy as this was taking place. He had spent World War II working on classified electronics in Boston. The Navy offered him a civilian job overseeing computer research projects. Thus, a copy of von Neumann's "Principles" paper ended up in his archives. 

I have made a PDF copy of this paper and posted it here. This is a sort of companion to Whirlwind block diagrams I posted earlier. 


Here is a rough chronology of von Neumann's earliest reports on computer design:

  • June 30, 1945 - First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC - a technical description of how to build a stored-program computer. While von Neumann produced the report and it carries his name, the contents are based on discussions within the ENIAC project about the design of a stored-program computer. 
  • May 15, 1946 - "The Principles of Large-Scale Computing Machines"
  • June 28, 1946 - Preliminary discussion of the logical design of an electronic computing instrument
  • July 8-August 30, 1946 - The Moore School Lectures - a lecture series given by members of the ENIAC project, including von Neumann, to an invited audience, including my father.

The first formal publication von Neumann produced on computer design was the Preliminary discussion of the logical design of an electronic computing instrument, co-authored with Arthur Burks and Herman Goldstine, on June 28, 1946. A year earlier he created and circulated the First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC, which might not have been intended as a formal publication, but was widely circulated. Between these, von Neumann gave his talk to the Navy, which only appeared in mimeograph form before being published in von Neumann's Collected Works in 1963. Nancy Stern also produced a copy of this paper and published it in the Annals of the History of Computing in 1981 (vol. 3 no. 3). 

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