The Hartree Centre takes its name from Douglas Rayner Hartree (1897-1958), a mathematician and physicist most famous for his contributions to the development of numerical analysis and equations such as the Appleton-Hartree equation for the refractive index and the Hartree–Fock method of atomic physics. Also named after him, the hartree or Hartree energy is an atomic unit of energy usually used in atomic physics and computational chemistry.
Hartree was also integral to the construction of the Meccano differential analyser. His life and career saw computing problems develop from numerical calculations on paper right through to the first electronic computers, and was influential in supporting the application of early computing machines to real scientific problems. It is this passion for the practical application of pioneering computing technology that makes him and ideal representative of what we do at the Hartree Centre.
The early years
Douglas Rayner Hartree was born into an academically inclined family in Cambridge, England, on 27 March 1897. His father, William Hartree, was a lecturer in engineering at the University of Cambridge and became part of the Anti-Aircraft Experimental Section of the Ministry of Munitions during World War I, assisting in the development of better defences against air raids. He was responsible for developing an improvised height-finder that was used extensively by troops to measure the altitude of aircraft until proper optical height-finders were produced, and it is this achievement that is believed to have resulted in his being awarded an OBE.
Douglas' mother, Eva Hartree (née Rayner), had a score of her own achievements, serving on the Borough Council for 20 years to become the first female Mayor of Cambridge, and was the Honorary Secretary of the British Red Cross Society for the Borough. She had a passion for working with refugees and championed women's equality as Secretary of the Farnham Suffrage Society, eventually going on to become President of the British National Council of Women, an organisation which fights to give women rights and a voice in both national and international affairs.
It was perhaps his mother's involvement in the Suffrage movement which lead to Douglas Rayner Hartree being educated at Bedales School in Hampshire, the first non-Quaker co-educational (mixed gender) public boarding school in England. Douglas joined the school aged 13 in 1910, and went on to attend St John's College at the University of Cambridge. He obtained first class honours in end-of-year examinations in 1916, but left his studies to join his father in the war effort. Douglas was a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and carried out computation and mathematical ballistics research alongside William Hartree.
He subsequently published his first article for scientific journal Nature on ballistics calculations describing the motion of a shell after leaving a gun.
Douglas Hartree returned to his studies at the University of Cambridge in 1919, obtaining a Second Class Honours in Natural Sciences in 1922. That autumn, he joined the PhD program in physics under Ernest Rutherford.
Hartree quickly realised his aptitude and interests were better suited to theoretical study rather than experimental physics. Influenced by the work of Niels Bohr, he began to look for problems in quantum theory and was mentored by Ralph H. Fowler , who he had met during his wartime research.
The birth of computing
Douglas Hartree was extremely influential in the development of early electronic computers, sometimes known as large-scale calculating machines. He visited the USA several times to investigate development of ENIAC and report his findings back to the scientific community in the UK. So reputed was his expertise, that his influence is noted on all three electronic computer development projects taking place in the UK during the 1940s-50s. During that time, Hartree promoted and supported early electronic computer development projects as part of various advisory committees and executive groups. In particular, he championed the application of this new technology to real scientific problems and advocated in favour of the grant which allowed Max Newman to instigate the development of computers in Manchester.
|1927||Developed the Hartree-Fock
method, also known as the self-consistent field method, which uses the Hartree equation as
an approximation of the Schrödinger
|1929||Appointed Beyer Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Manchester |
|1930||Presented work which would become the magneto-ionic theory and Appleton-Hartree
equation for the refractive index|
|1932||Awarded Fellowship of the Royal Society|
|1934||Built the Hartree
and Porter Meccano differential analyser|
|1937||Appointed Chairman of Theoretical Physics at the University of Manchester|
|1945||Visited the USA to advise UK on development of large-scale calculating
machines (early electronic computers) |
|1946||Appointed Plummer Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Cambridge|
|1947||Influenced the development of LEO, the first computer used for commercial business application|
Values and interests
Outside of his professional life, Douglas Hartree was passionate about music, having an extensive knowledge of orchestral and chamber music. He played piano and was conductor of an amateur orchestra. This passion for music was perhaps what brought him together with his wife, Elaine Charlton, who was also a former Bedales student and an accomplished pianist. Their marriage resulted in two sons, Oliver and John Richard, and one daughter, Margaret.
The Hartree legacy
Douglas Hartree's daughter, Margaret Hartree-Booth, visited the Hartree Centre on 25 April 2013. Just after his death in 1958, she shared her personal memories of her father in a document created for St John's College at Cambridge University, which he attended until the First World War interrupted his studies. You can read it here.
At the Hartree Centre, we strive to create a legacy that Douglas Hartree and his family would be proud of. We believe in a transformative future for mathematics and computing and aim to deliver it with values of transparency, sustainability and equality at the heart of everything we do. Read more about our mission and vision here.
Douglas Rayner Hartree: His Life in Science and Computing by Charlotte Froese Fischer.
Douglas Rayner Hartree Obituary | The Times