beamjockey (beamjockey) wrote,

Young Von Neumann Encounters Punched Cards

In addition to his work on pure mathematics, John von Neumann contributed fundamental advances to dozens of fields, from quantum mechanics to weather prediction. In particular, he was a pivotal figure in the development of electronic digital computers.

I've been reading George Dyson's terrific book Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. Within its pages, I found an interesting quote. Von Neumann's father Max was a Budapest banker who discussed his work with his children at the dinner table. Dyson quotes Nicholas A. Vonneuman* in John von Neumann As Seen by His Brother. Dyson writes:
Max believed in demonstrating practical examples of the industrial applications of finance. "If these activities involved financing of a newspaper enterprise, the discussion was about the printing press and he brought home and demonstrated samples of type,” says Nicholas. “Or if it was a textile enterprise, e.g., the 'Hungaria Jacquard Textile Weaving Factory,' the discussion centered around the Jacquard automatic loom. It probably does not take much imagination to trace this experience to John's later interest in punched cards!"
This offers a connection between Jacquard's loom and an individual deeply involved in developing the stored-program architecture now featured in virtually all computers. I should add this quote to my "Babbage's Favorite Picture" talk.**

* Different members of the family Anglicized their Hungarian names into different spellings.

**It took me fifteen years before I managed to find an image of the Jacquard Jacquard, but I now see that it pops up on Wikipedia for all to see in seconds.
Tags: computers, history
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