Von Neumann had one piece of advice for us: not to originate anything.
Monday, January 5, 2015 at 9:05AM
Todd Hoff

I don't know about you, but when I read about the exploits of people like John von Neumann, Alan Turing, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Kurt Gödel in Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson, I can't help but flash back to the Age of Heroes, where the names are different--Achilles, Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Ajax--but the larger than life story they lived is familiar. Dyson's book is the Iliad of our times, telling the story of great battles of the human mind: the atomic bomb, Turing machines, programmable computers, weather prediction, genetic-modeling, Monte Carlo simulation, and cellular automata.

Which brings up another question I can't help but ponder: is it the age that makes the person or is it the person that makes the age? Do we have these kind of people today? Or can they only be forged in war?

Anyway, I found this advice from John von Neumann, as told by Julian Bigelow, about how to go about building the MANIAC  computer. This advice still echoes down project management halls today:

“Von Neumann had one piece of advice for us: not to originate anything.” This helped put the IAS project in the lead. “One of the reasons our group was successful, and got a big jump on others, was that we set up certain limited objectives, namely that we would not produce any new elementary components,” adds Bigelow. “We would try and use the ones which were available for standard communications purposes. We chose vacuum tubes which were in mass production, and very common types, so that we could hope to get reliable components, and not have to go into component research.”

They did innovate on architecture by making it possible to store and run programs. Some interesting quotes from the book around that development:

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