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  • 9/25/2004

James Hardy Wilkinson

(27 September 1919 - 5 October 1986)

Jim Wilkinson won a Foundation Scholarship to Sir Joseph Williamson'sMathematical School, Rochester at the age of 11. At the age of 16 he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. At Cambridge he was taught by Hardy, Littlewood and Besicovitch. His final examination results were sent to him by Besicovitch who wrote: Easily at the top of the First Class. Heartiest Congratulations.
In 1940 Wilkinson began war work which involved mathematical and numerical work on ballistics. He also worked on the thermodynamics of explosions but asked for a transfer. He became Turing's assistant at the National Physical Laboratory in London in 1946.

At the N.P.L. he worked on the ACE computer project. His work at this time was described as follows:-
Turing provided the blueprint, but could not get on with others. Wilkie [the name by which Wilkinson was known at that time] was able to cooperate as well as anyone with Turing, and had the tact and wisdom necessary to get things done. He grasped all the technical details very quickly, shared the lectures on ACE with Turing and wrote the definitive description of the design. Wilkinson continued work becoming more involved in writing many high quality papers on numerical analysis, particularly numerical linear algebra. In numerical linear algebra he developed backward error analysis methods. He worked on numerical methods for solving systems of linear equations and eigenvalue problems.
As well as the large numbers of papers on his theoretical work on numerical analysis, Wilkinson developed computer software, working on the production of libraries of numerical routines. The NAG (Numerical Algorithms Group) began work in 1970 and much of the linear algebra routines were due to Wilkinson.
He received many awards for his outstanding work. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1969. He received the A M Turing award from the Association of Computing Machinery and the J von Neumann award from the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics both in 1970.
He is described in [L Fox, James Hardy Wilkinson, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society of London 33 (1987), 671-708] as having extrovert characteristics but being a reserved and private man: Discussion with him was not always easy because the competitive instinct led him to introduce topics about which he had read and remembered a great deal.
He was described by a colleague as: always optimistic and jovial, very fair and impartial in his evaluations, liked virtually everybody, had a nearly overpowering enthusiasm for many things outside mathematics. ... he was always competitive.

Article by:

J. J. O'Connor and E F Robertson

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