AWS News Blog

Amazon DevCon – George Dyson – Another Viewpoint

George opened up his speech with this statement: “I’m interested in how thing begin…what was the first computer?” Anyone?

It was at the University of Princeton, per Dyson. You got to love the cathode-ray tube era of computer technology.

John Von Neumann wrote the “Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata”. Even before that, Thomas Hobbes wrote about artificial life (back in the 17th century). At the same time, Leibniz wrote about binary calculus implemented by a machine. Imagine hearing something like that back in the 17th century.

Dyson showed a number of pictures of old, obtusely-mechanical computing devices, including one electronic diagram from the 1930s of a computing machine that could have two separate thoughts.

Check out the legend of Fuld Hall. Von Neumann was part of it. So was Einstein.

Von Neumann came out of high school class with the people who made America the world power. It was the Budapest Lutheran High School. Note that the school is in Hungry.

Von Neumann had a job in Berlin, then moved onto Princeton. Von Neumann may have described Amazon with his “Theory of games and economic behavior” where the key is to form coalitions. Of course, he did practice this theory and ran up quite a tab as a poker player.

Back in the 1930s, mathematicians like Paul Erdos were paid $750 a year.

A little about the story of Dr. Godel, an Austrian who couldn’t go to America because they thought he was German; this was, of course, during the same time Germany had taken over Austria. After many letters, he becomes an American; only to get drafted and go to boot camp. He spends his later life in a mental institution.

Von Neumann’s theory of stationary detonation waves was one of the keys in the development of the atomic bomb.

What does this have to do with computers?

Neumann thought about computers as a way to process his math. Even before there was a computer, von Neumann was working on the software for it.

It wasn’t coincidence that IBM was in on the computer. In May, 1945, IBM had a hand in Neumann’s early computer work.

Why was von Neumann’s computing architecture called the “von Neumann Architecture”? It was Willis Ware, not Neumann, who came up with the computing architecture that we’re using today: something with a central processing unit, memory, etc.

RCA decided not to support von Neumann’s computing project. They thought there was no market. (Well, not yet.) The engineers on the computing project were paid $1 and had given up the patent rights.

You think coffee area complaints are new to companies? Dyson had the crowd laughing when he showed one of the first complaints of computer engineers consuming many times more coffee and tea than anyone else in the institute. This was back in 1947.

Want to learn more about von Neumann?

Jeff Barr

Jeff Barr

Jeff Barr is Chief Evangelist for AWS. He started this blog in 2004 and has been writing posts just about non-stop ever since.