‘Before creation, God did just pure mathematics. Then He thought it would be a pleasant change to do some applied.’ - John Edensor Littlewood.
John Edensor Littlewood, mathematician was born in Rochester on 9 June 1885. He lived with his parents Sylvia and Edward Thornton Littlewood at 4, Clevedon Terrace, Roebuck Lane.1 His father who had been Ninth Wrangler in the Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge three years earlier, was a mathematics master at Rochester Cathedral Grammar School (now the King’s School) which had been founded in 604 AD.2 The school had been mired in controversy forty years earlier when the then headmaster, Mr Whiston had complained to the Dean and Chapter that they were not fulfilling their obligations to the school.3 Whiston, who was subsequently sacked, was to be the inspiration for Anthony Trollope’s The Warden.
The Littlewood family moved to Dover in 1887, where his father took up a post at Dover College, set in the grounds and ruins of the Priory of St. Martin. Edward’s younger brother Francis had attended the school which had been established sixteen years earlier. It was here that John’s two brothers Martin and Leslie were born and where his parents took in boarders, so home life would have been lively with babies and young boys.4
In 1891, John’s father took up a position as Assistant to the Professor of Mathematics at Glasgow University. It is uncertain whether John and his siblings spent any time in Scotland as they were living with their grandparents in Bideford Devon during the census. In the following year the family moved to Wynberg, Cape Town where his father took up a post as headmaster at a High School for boys. John spent the next eight years in Africa where he went to school and attended lectures at Cape Town University, despite his very young age. He said of his childhood: “I had a very happy childhood among mountains, the ocean, and a beautiful climate”.5 However, this period of his life was marred by the loss of his younger brother Leslie who died when he fell from a bridge into a lake at the age of eight. This must have been an unbearable shock for his family as his uncle Francis had drowned at sea six years earlier.6
At the age of 15, John returned to England to live with his aunt and uncle and became a pupil at St Paul’s College, London. He began to suffer with depression during his school days, a condition which dogged him for many years, and may be linked with his early bereavements, however educationally he thrived under the tutelage of mathematics master Francis Sowerby Macaulay. In 1903, he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge. He described his time at Cambridge: “To be in the running for Senior Wrangler one had to spend two-thirds of the time parctising how to solve difficult problems against time”.7 It was something that came easily to him.
In 1912, he published the first of a series of papers with G.H. Hardy, a collaboration which was to last 35 years. The two mathematicians published articles on Diophantine analysis, divergent series summation, Fourier series, the Riemann zeta function and the distribution of primes.
During the First World War, John served as a second lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery working on and furthering research into ballistics. He was able to predict with accuracy missile trajectories, for which he gained much respect and he was allowed certain privileges such as carrying his umbrella whilst in uniform.8. This work improved the accuracy of anti-aircraft range tables.9
In 1938, Littlewood began working with Mary Cartwright on non-linear differential equations to advance research into radio enginnering as a result of an appeal from the Radio Research Board. Once again it was signicant work that contributed to the war effort. John and Mary spent 12 years working on equations including van der Pol’s equation.
Sir Henry Dale described John as “the man most likely to storm and smash a really deep and formidable problem; there was no one else who could command such a combination of insight, technique and power”.10 John loved holidaying in Cornwall where he enjoyed walking and sea swimming. In 1934, he assisted Dr Raymond Streatfeild when two swimmers were almost drowned at Porthcurno, which must have been a reminder of his own family’s tragedies.11 He died on the 6 September 1977 in Cambridge.
This article was researched with the help of Fanta as part of the Duke of Edinburgh award. It was published: 3 September 2022.
Bollobás, Béla. “Littlewood, John Edensor (1885–1977), mathematician.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23. Oxford University Press. Date of access 1 Sep. 2022, https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-31368 ↩
The Rochester Diocesan Directory 1884. ↩
Historic Hansard. Available at: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1851/jul/11/cathedral-trusts-the-rochester-grammar ↩
The Spectator, 1890. ↩
MSAC Philosophy Group Littlewood’s Law of Miracles, p.4 ↩
Venn, John. Alumni Cantabrigienses: A Biographical List of All Known Students, Graduates and Holders of Office at the University of Cambridge, from the Earliest Times to 1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. ↩
MSAC Philosophy Group Littlewood’s Law of Miracles, p.5 ↩
MSAC Philosophy Group Littlewood’s Law of Miracles, p.6 ↩
O’Connor, J.J. and Robertson, E.F. John Edensor Littlewood https://mathshistory.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Littlewood/ , 2003. ↩
Littlewood, John Endensor. Littlewood’s Miscellany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986. ↩
“Thriling Rescue near Porthcurno.” Cornishman, 13 Sept. 1934, p. 4. British Library Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/IG3223742098/GDCS?u=ccc_uni&sid=bookmark-GDCS&xid=29c969ca. Accessed 2 Sept. 2022. ↩