John von Neumann

December 28, 1903 – February 8, 1957

Brief Biography

John von Neumann Award Photo

One of the great Twentieth Century mathematicians, John von Neumann left an outstanding legacy on numerous disciplines. It is nearly impossible to understate his influence on Western science. A pioneer in quantum physics, his work on the Manhattan Project during the Second World War led to the creation of the first atomic bomb. In operations research, von Neumann’s contributions included the early advancement of game theory, utility theory, numerical analysis, and programmable computers. His development of Monte Carlo simulation with Stanislaw Ulam also helped advance OR application and theory.

János Lajos Neumann was born in Budapest, Hungary. His father, a successful banker, was awarded a hereditary title, stylized as the German “von Neumann”, by Emperor Franz Josef of Austria. Growing up, the young János (anglicized later to “John”) was celebrated as a mathematical prodigy. It is said that by age eight, he had mastered calculus. Von Neumann received his education in Hungary and Switzerland before accepting a position at the University of Berlin. He relocated to Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study where he helped foster one of the brightest mathematics communities of the mid-century. Von Neumann was responsible for hiring bright, young scholars and realizing their full potential. He was incredibly admired in that community, being held in same level of respect as Albert Einstein.

In 1928, von Neumann proved the existence of an optimal minimax strategy for two-person zero-sum games, overturning Emile Borel’s skepticism that there were two-person zero-sum games without solutions. That same year, he also offered an existence of an equilibrium for any two-person discrete game. This work, which became an essential foundation of game theory, would lead to the creation and enhancement of other OR methodologies including George Dantzig’s simplex method and linear programming. Once, when Dantzig was giving a description of linear programming, von Neumman interrupted the lectured to out a theoretical framework based on a conjectured correspondence to the theory of two-person zero-sum games.   Von Neumann’s advanaces in game theory and modern utility theory with Oskar Morgenstern, culminated in their 1944 book, Theories of Games and Economic Behavior.

Von Neumann’s work in operations research was largely set aside at the start of World War II. While many of his Princeton colleagues and students went on to the National Defense Research Council or other such organizations, von Neumann had been invited to work on the extremely top secret Manhattan Project. After the successful development of the atomic bomb in 1945, he remained with America’s atomic effort as it was transferred from the US Army to the Department of Energy. He served as the commissioner of the American Atomic Energy Commission from March, 1955 until his death in February 1957.

Von Neumann’s postwar work took atomic energy beyond theoretical conversation. He continued his work on the development of digital computing systems. In 1945, he published a paper setting out the concept of the stored program computer which, while not the first such proposal, was extremely influential in the development of modern computational systems. Building upon the revelations of Stanislaw Ulam, he jointly developed the Monte Carlo method of simulation that dealt with the generation of (pseudo) random numbers that follow a specified probability distribution and was done in support of nuclear research. The roots of the method came from von Neumann’s attempts to use computing power to solve complex nuclear physics problems. The resulting product wound up as an important foundation for computer simulation. With Herman Goldstine, he worked on computationally inverting matrices.

Von Neumann received numerous accolades over the course of his lifetime, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Dwight Eisenhower. The Operations Research Society of America chose to honor his legacy by creating an award in his honor. The John von Neumann Theory Prize is among the most prestigious in the field and recognizes significant contributions to the theory and application of OR. Unfortunately, von Neumann succumbed cancer and passed away at the age of fifty-four.

Other Biographies

Profiles in Operations Research: John von Neumann
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Wikipedia Entry for John von Neumann

Aspray W. (1990) John von Neuman and the Origins of Modern Computing. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.

Bochner S. (1958) John von Neumann, 1903-1957. National Academy of Sciences: Washington D.C. (link)

Gass S. I. (2006) IFORS' Operational Research Hall of Fame: John von Neumann. International Transactions in Operations Research, 13 (1): 85-90. (link)

John Von Neumann, A Documentary (1966). MAA Video Classics Number 2. Video. The Mathematical Association of America. 

Macrae N. (1992) John Von Neumann: The Scientific Genius who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Deterrence, and Much More. American Mathematical Society: Providence Rhode Island.


Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, 1925 

Eötvös Loránd University, PhD 1926 (Mathematics Genealogy)


Academic Affiliations
  • Princeton University
  • Eötvös Loránd University
  • Institute for Advanced Study
  • Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich)
  • University of Berlin
Non-Academic Affiliations

Key Interests in OR/MS



Morgenstern O. (1957) Obituary: John von Neumann, 1903-1957. The Economic Journal, 68(269): 170-174.

Ulam S. (1958) John von Neumann, 1903-1547. Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, 64(3): 1-49. (link)


John von Neumann Collection. Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. The University of Texas at Austin. (link)

Awards and Honors

National Academy of Sciences 1937

Bôcher Memorial Prize 1938

United States Presidential Medal of Merit 1947

United States Presidential Medal of Freedom 1956

Enrico Fermi Award 1956

International Federation of Operations Research Societies' Hall of Fame 2006

Selected Publications

Von Neumann J. (1928) On the theory of strategy games. Mathematische Annalen, 100: 295-320.

Morgenstern O. & von Neumann J. (1944) Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Princeton University Press: Princeton.

Ulam S. & von Neumann J. (1946) On combination stochastic and deterministric processes: Preliminary reports [abstract]. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 53: 1120.

Goldstine H. & von Neumann J. (1947) Numerical inverting of matrices of high order. Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, 53(11): 1021-1099.

Brown G. W. & von Neumann J. (1950) Solutions of Games by Differential Equations. RAND Corporation: Santa Monica, CA.

Von Neumann J. (1951) Various techniques used in connection with random digits. Journal of Research of the National Bureau of Standards, 3: 36-38.

Additional Resources

Wikiquote. John von Neumann. Accessed February 10, 2015. (link)

Glimm J., Impagliazzo J., & Singer I., eds. (1988) Proceedings of the Summer Research Institute on the Legacy of John von Neumann. American Mathematical Society: Providence, RI.