James H. Wilkinson

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James "Jim" Hardy "Wilkie" Wilkinson (born September 27, 1919 in Strood , Kent ; † October 5, 1986 in London ) was a British mathematician who enriched numerical mathematics primarily through work on the backward analysis of rounding errors . In 1970 he was awarded the Turing Prize .


Wilkinson received a scholarship to Sir Joseph Williamson's Mathematical School at the age of eleven and to Trinity College at the University of Cambridge at 16 , where he began studying mathematics at 17 (with Abram Besikowitsch , Godfrey Hardy and John Littlewood, among others ) and this in 1939 left at the age of 20 as the best of his year (Senior Wrangler in the Tripos exams ). During the Second World War he carried out ballistics calculations for the British Ministry of Supply using numerical methods . In 1945 he married Heather Nora Ware, with whom he had a daughter and a son. From 1946 to 1980 he worked at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington , Middlesex . From 1977 Wilkinson was at the same time (until 1984) Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Stanford University in Palo Alto , California .


Alan Turing , the 1945-1948 has also worked at the National Physical Laboratory, worked during this time on the design of a computer based on the Analytical Engine of Charles Babbage Automatic Computing Engine was called (ACE). However, due to organizational problems at the NPL, the construction of the ACE was delayed, which is why Alan Turing left the institute. James Hardy Wilkinson, previously Turing's assistant, led the team that eventually implemented Turing's ideas and completed a prototype of the ACE in 1950. This prototype was the fastest computer in the world for a while. The part of the arithmetic unit responsible for the multiplication was developed by Wilkinson. More than 30 copies of the successor DEUCE were produced, some of which were still in use until 1970.

Wilkinson became famous for his work on stability in numerical mathematics. Since computers work with floating point numbers of limited precision, rounding errors occur during calculations that can significantly falsify the result. Wilkinson has dealt intensively with the analysis of such rounding errors. Using the backward analysis method he developed, he proved fundamental results for error estimation, which are particularly important for solving systems of linear equations . Together with Christian Reinsch, Wilkinson published many of the algorithms he developed and analyzed in the fundamental Handbook for Computation, Volume II, Linear Algebra , which was published in 1971 by the scientific Springer Verlag . They were implemented in software by the Numerical Algorithms Group (NAG) from 1971 . Wilkinson also coined the term “ sparse matrix ”.


James Hardy Wilkinson was awarded the ACM's prestigious Turing Prize in 1970 for his achievements in numerical mathematics . In the same year he became John von Neumann Lecturer of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics . In 1963 he had already received an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University . In 1969 he was elected to the Royal Society of London and in 1974 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences . In 1977 he became an honorary member of the British Institute of Mathematics and its Applications . 1978 was accepted as a corresponding member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences . In 1987 he received the Chauvenet Prize . He has received honorary doctorates from Brunel University , Heriot-Watt University , the University of Waterloo and the University of Essex .

The Argonne National Laboratory , the National Physical Laboratory and the Numerical Algorithms Group have been awarding the JH Wilkinson Prize for Numerical Software in his honor every four years since 1991, and the SIAM awards the James H. Wilkinson Prize for Numerical Analysis and Scientific Computing.

In 1974 he was invited speaker at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Vancouver (Invariant Subspaces), in 1962 in Stockholm (Error bounds for unitary equivalence and similarity transformations) and also in 1966 (A priori error estimates of algebraic processes).


  • Rounding errors in algebraic processes. 1963 (German rounding error , translated by Gerhard Goos . 1969, Springer, Berlin et al.)
  • The Algebraic Eigenvalue Problem . 1965, Oxford University Press
  • With Christian Reinsch : Handbook for Computation, Volume II, Linear Algebra , Grundlehren der Mathematischen Wissenschaften , Springer-Verlag , 1971
  • The Perfidious Polynomial . In: Studies in Numerical Analysis , pp. 1–28, MAA Stud. Math., 24, Math. Assoc. America, Washington, DC, 1984

Individual evidence

  1. James Hardy Wilkinson obituary in the 1987 yearbook of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences (PDF file)

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