Richardson, Lewis Fry

(1881-1953), mathematician and pacifist

by Oliver M. Ashford

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Richardson, Lewis Fry (1881-1953), mathematician and pacifist, was born on 11 October 1881 at The Gables, Elswick Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, the youngest of the seven children of David Richardson (1835-1913) and his wife, Catherine (1838-1919), daughter of Robert and Jane Fry of Wellington, Somerset. His father was trained as a chemist and became a successful director of the family leather manufacturing business, developing improved methods of tanning to produce high quality leather. Both the parents were active members of the Society of Friends and they brought their children up in the best Quaker traditions.

After six years at local schools in Newcastle Richardson followed in the footsteps of his father and of three of his brothers by being sent to Bootham School in York, where he received every encouragement to pursue his interest in natural history. He continued his studies at the Durham College of Science in Newcastle (now Newcastle University) from where he gained a scholarship to King's College, Cambridge, in 1900. In the following ten years Richardson took a series of research and teaching posts, twice at the National Physical Laboratory, twice in industry, and twice in university physics departments. Of greatest significance for his future career was a spell with National Peat Industries from 1906 to 1907. Here he was asked to calculate how best to design drains in a peat moss, taking into account the annual rainfall. As the mathematical equations involved were not formally soluble, he was led to study approximate methods of solution, first graphical and then numerical. This resulted in the publication in 1910 of his first important paper 'The approximate solution by finite differences of physical problems involving differential equations'.

In 1909 Richardson married Dorothy (1885-1956), daughter of William Garnett (after whom the Garnett College of Technology in Roehampton is named). Due to an incompatibility in their blood types, they were unable to have children of their own, but they adopted two boys and a girl between 1920 and 1927. Unlike her husband, who was shy and loved solitude, Dorothy was extrovert and gregarious. Under his influence she left the Church of England to become an enthusiastic member of the Society of Friends. Throughout their happy marriage she was supportive of Lewis's pacifist views and helped him in his research work, for example by relieving him of some of the tedious arithmetic calculations.

Richardson realized that his method for obtaining approximate solutions to differential equations could have many practical applications, including weather prediction. His appointment in 1913 as the superintendent of Eskdalemuir observatory in Dumfriesshire and the encouragement of the director of the Meteorological Office, Sir Napier Shaw, at last gave him the opportunity to develop his ideas. By 1916, when he resigned from the Meteorological Office to join the Friends' Ambulance Unit, he had practically completed the first draft of his book Weather Prediction by Numerical Process. All that remained was to compute a weather forecast to demonstrate how his method would work. He made the necessary calculations while serving as an ambulance driver in France. His war experiences and Quaker beliefs led him at the same time to turn his thoughts to the causes of war and how to prevent them. He felt that it might be useful to tackle this problem by an objective scientific approach. His first paper on this subject, Mathematical Psychology of War, was published at his own expense in 1919. In it he postulated that the rate of increase of the warlike activity of one nation depended on the current activity of the opposing nation.

On returning to England in 1919 Richardson was reappointed by Shaw, this time to work at Benson Observatory with W. H. Dines on topics relating to numerical weather prediction. He experimented on measuring the vertical distribution of temperature and wind, atmospheric turbulence, and radiation. He derived a criterion, the 'Richardson number', for determining whether turbulence will increase or decrease.

In 1920 Richardson resigned again from the Meteorological Office because he felt unable to work directly for the armed services--the office had become part of the Air Ministry. From then until his retirement he worked in the education world, as lecturer in physics and mathematics at Westminster Training College until 1929 and then as principal of Paisley Technical College (now the University of Paisley).

Richardson's book on weather prediction was finally published in 1922. Although the pioneering nature of his method was widely recognized, the book had no practical impact: existing observing and computing facilities were very inadequate and his computed forecast was grossly in error. His ideas were taken more seriously in the 1950s thanks to the availability of better observations and much faster computers, and within a few years numerical methods had been introduced all over the world. In his early years at Westminster, Richardson continued his meteorological researches, especially on atmospheric diffusion. From his experiments he deduced a new law for the rate of diffusion; some twenty years later the same law was obtained independently on theoretical grounds.

While still a student at Cambridge, Richardson had decided to spend the first half of his life under the strict discipline of physics and then to apply this training to researches on living things. The change came in 1926 when he abandoned meteorology for psychology, immediately after being elected a fellow of the Royal Society. By 1929 he had already published the first of a series of papers on the quantitative estimation of perception, including brightness, colour, loudness, and pain. The accepted view at that time was that such measurements were meaningless but twenty years later his methods were being used widely by psychologists.

Another break came in 1935 when, after the failure of the disarmament conference in Geneva, Richardson decided to re-examine his earlier work on the causes of war. By using expenditure on arms as a measure of warlike activity, he showed that his simple mathematical model of an arms race corresponded roughly to what had happened in the run-up to both world wars. He next analysed statistically data on past wars and other deadly quarrels from a card catalogue which he himself had compiled, and found a number of significant relationships which he then tried to explain. As he was unable to find a publisher for the books containing all his findings, he published them himself on microfilm. Edited versions were published posthumously in 1960 under the titles Arms and Insecurity and Statistics of Deadly Quarrels. Another posthumous publication, The Problem of Contiguity, was influential in the development of fractals and of chaos theory.

In 1943 Richardson left Paisley for Hillside House, Kilmun, on the Firth of Clyde where he died in his sleep of a heart attack on 30 September 1953. His cremation at Maryhill, Glasgow, on 5 October was followed the same day by a memorial service of the Society of Friends in Glasgow.


O. M. Ashford, Prophet--or professor: the life and work of Lewis Fry Richardson (1985)
E. Gold, Obits. FRS, 9 (1954), 217-35
Collected papers of Lewis Fry Richardson, ed. O. M. Ashford and others, 2 vols. (1993)
Bootham School Register (1935)
private information (2004)

CUL, corresp. and papers
Lancaster University, Richardson Institute for Peace Studies
Meteorological Office, Bracknell, Berkshire
University of Paisley Library, papers

W. Stoneman, photograph, 1931, NPG
W. Stoneman, photograph, 1931, RS [see illus.]
Elliott & Fry, three photographs, RS
glass engraving, Meteorological Office, Bracknell, Berkshire
photographs, CUL, Richardson MSS

Wealth at death  
£3726 18s. 1d.: confirmation, 16 Nov 1953, CCI

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


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