Hartree, Douglas Rayner

(1897-1958), mathematician and theoretical physicist

by C. G. Darwin, rev. Jon Agar

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Hartree, Douglas Rayner (1897-1958), mathematician and theoretical physicist, was born on 27 March 1897 in Cambridge, where his father, William Hartree, a grandson of Samuel Smiles, was a member of the teaching staff of the engineering laboratory; he retired in 1913, but thereafter continued to do scientific work, much of it as assistant to his son. Hartree's mother, Eva Rayner, was the daughter of a prominent Stockport physician and sister of E. H. Rayner, who for many years was superintendent of the electricity division of the National Physical Laboratory. She was herself active in public affairs, serving as president of the National Council of Women and as mayor of Cambridge.

Douglas Hartree was the eldest of three sons, but alone survived to manhood. He was educated first in Cambridge, then at Bedales School, in Petersfield, from 1910 to 1915, where the excellent teaching of mathematics shaped his chief interests in later life. In 1915 he entered St John's College, Cambridge, as a scholar, but after a year he abandoned his studies for work in a team under A. V. Hill developing the new science of anti-aircraft gunnery. After the war Hartree completed his university courses and was awarded a PhD in 1926. In 1923 he had married Elaine, daughter of Eustace and Beatrice Charlton of Keswick, and an ex-pupil of Bedales School. They had one daughter and two sons. Hartree was elected fellow of St John's (1924-7) and of Christ's College (1928-9). He was appointed to the chair of applied mathematics (1929-37) and of theoretical physics (1937-45) in the University of Manchester. In 1946 he became Plummer professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge, a chair which he held until his death, and was again a fellow of Christ's. He was elected FRS in 1932.

The main scope of Hartree's work was largely determined by his early experiences in anti-aircraft gunnery. The calculation of trajectories involved much numerical work with pencil and paper, a type of mathematics in which he became expert; already at the age of twenty he had introduced outstanding improvements into the calculation of trajectories. He continued to develop this kind of work all through his life, and he came to be regarded as a world leader in computation, called in as consultant in many countries.

In the 1920s Hartree applied his methods to the solution of problems associated with the new quantum theories of the structure of the atom, particularly wave mechanics. In this field his most conspicuous work was the invention of the method of the self-consistent field. This made possible the practical solution of a problem which, if exactly treated, would have a quite impossible degree of complexity. Ten years later numerical methods were much changed by the invention of the differential analyser by Vannevar Bush in America. Hartree visited him at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the summer of 1933 and gained both theoretical knowledge and valuable practical experience with the analyser. After returning to Britain Hartree first constructed (with graduate student Arthur Porter) a model of Bush's machine using the children's construction toy, Meccano. Successful operation of the model machine to solve differential equations allowed Hartree to persuade philanthropic benefactor and Manchester University deputy treasurer, Sir Robert McDougall, to fund a full-scale machine. This differential analyser, built by Metropolitan-Vickers, was widely used for military and scientific calculations. Hartree also became a leader in developing methods of automatic control for many complicated processes of manufacture: for example, his three term controller, used in chemical engineering plants, was a significant new technique of automation.

Hartree was also involved in the development of the digital electronic computer, which emerged from wartime attempts to automate calculation further, and was to replace differential analyses as the means of rapid solution of equations. In 1946 Hartree's advice was sought in the application of the United States army's ENIAC (electronic numerical integrator and computer) to the production of ballistic tables. A process which previously took a team of workers several days could now be done in thirty seconds. The first electronic digital stored program computer, based on the ideas of the ENIAC designers, was built at Manchester University in 1948, but Hartree had left for Cambridge two years previously.

Hartree's distinction as a scientist was not so much in the depth of his researches as in their breadth. With the new methods it became possible to attack many problems in a great variety of subjects which had before been insoluble, and it was he who largely led the way in this new attack. His book, Numerical Analysis (1952), came to be regarded as a classic of the subject. He was remembered as a good lecturer and brilliant at clarifying a subject by an intuitive knowledge of the level of understanding of his listener.

From boyhood Hartree had a strong interest in railways and their signalling methods, and in later life this proved useful to the railway companies in relation to their complicated traffic problems. He served on a committee of the British Transport Commission and showed how to use the high-speed computing machines to solve traffic problems which had previously taken months of calculation. Music was among his other interests: he played the piano and other instruments and also conducted an amateur orchestra. Hartree died of heart failure in Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, on 12 February 1958. He was survived by his wife.


C. G. Darwin, Memoirs FRS, 4 (1958), 103-16
M. V. Wilkes, introduction, in D. R. Hartree, Calculating machines (1984), ix-xvi
M. D. Bowles, 'US technological enthusiasm and British technological skepticism in the age of the analog brain', IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, 18 (1996), 5-15
L. Owens, 'Vannevar Bush and the differential analyzer: the text and context of an early computer', Technology and Culture, 27 (1986), 63-95
National Archive for the History of Computing, Manchester
CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1958)

Christ's College, Cambridge, corresp. and scientific papers
University of Manchester, National Archive for the History of Computing, working papers, etc. |  American Institute of Physics, College Park, Maryland, Niels Bohr Library, corresp. with Niels Bohr
Duke U., Perkins L., corresp. with F. London
U. Leeds, Brotherton L., corresp. with E. C. Stoner

W. Stoneman, photograph, 1944, NPG
photograph, repro. in Darwin, Memoirs FRS
photograph, repro. in Wilkes, 'Introduction'

Wealth at death  
£55,691 2s. 0d.: probate, 14 May 1958, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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