© 2018

Routines of Substitution

John von Neumann’s Work on Software Development, 1945–1948


  • Presents the text of a hitherto unpublished seminal work in the history of computing

  • Provides an accessible and rich contextual discussion of an article by von Neumann

  • Describes the earliest known example of a "modern" computer program, and discusses ideas that shaped the emergence of the discipline of programming


Part of the SpringerBriefs in History of Computing book series (BRIEFSHC)

Table of contents

  1. Front Matter
    Pages i-viii
  2. Mark Priestley
    Pages 1-7
  3. Mark Priestley
    Pages 9-19
  4. Mark Priestley
    Pages 21-37
  5. Mark Priestley
    Pages 39-53
  6. Mark Priestley
    Pages 55-75
  7. Mark Priestley
    Pages 77-89
  8. Mark Priestley
    Pages 91-99
  9. Back Matter
    Pages 101-131

About this book


This work is a historical and philosophical study of the programming work carried out by John von Neumann in the period 1945-8. At the heart of the book is an examination of a manuscript featuring the earliest known surviving example of von Neumann’s coding, a routine written in 1945 to ‘mesh’ two sequences of data and intended to be part of a larger program implementing the algorithm now known as mergesort.

The text of the manuscript itself, along with a preliminary document describing the code he used to write this program, are reproduced as appendices. The program is approached in three chapters describing the historical background to von Neumann’s work, the significance of the sorting application itself, and the development of the EDVAC, the machine for which the program was written. The subsequent chapters widen the focus again, discussing the subsequent evolution of the program and the crucial topic of subroutines, before concluding by situating von Neumann’s work in a number of wider contexts. The book also offers a unifying philosophical interpretation of von Neumann’s approach to coding.


John von Neumann Sorting Algorithms EDVAC Early Computer Programs Software Development

Authors and affiliations

  1. 1.Freelance Writer and Historian of ComputingLondonUnited Kingdom

About the authors

Dr. Mark Priestley is a freelance writer and historian of computing based in London.

Bibliographic information

  • Book Title Routines of Substitution
  • Book Subtitle John von Neumann’s Work on Software Development, 1945–1948
  • Authors Mark Priestley
  • Series Title SpringerBriefs in History of Computing
  • Series Abbreviated Title SpringerBriefs in History of Computing
  • DOI
  • Copyright Information The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018
  • Publisher Name Springer, Cham
  • eBook Packages Computer Science Computer Science (R0)
  • Softcover ISBN 978-3-319-91670-5
  • eBook ISBN 978-3-319-91671-2
  • Series ISSN 2524-6127
  • Series E-ISSN 2524-6135
  • Edition Number 1
  • Number of Pages VIII, 131
  • Number of Illustrations 8 b/w illustrations, 0 illustrations in colour
  • Topics History of Computing
    Programming Techniques
    History of Science
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