History of Numerical Analysis


Oral Histories



Michael J. D. Powell

Oral History (pdf)

Interviewer: Philip Davis

Michael Powell discusses his career and research.

Powell was born in London and lived in Sussex and Surrey. He had a governess in mathematics when he was very young, and because he enjoyed looking at mathematics books, often just doing the exercises, he was ahead of his classes in mathematics. He became an undergraduate at Cambridge, finishing in three years, two years for part 2 of the Mathematical Tripos and then taking a diploma in numerical analysis and computing in his third year. He joined the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, and stayed for seventeen years. At Harwell, he started the Harwell Subroutine Library, one of the first libraries of numerical algorithms, and began his research career.  He discusses the origin of the DFP [Davidon-Fletcher-Powell] method and subsequent methods that overtook it. After leaving Harwell, he returned to Cambridge in 1976 as a Professor and continued his research career. He received a Doctor of Science degree in 1979 at Cambridge. He discusses his subsequent work in optimization and approximation, the differences between research at Harwell and Cambridge, and his preferences in conducting research, including his tendency to publish by himself. Powell retired from Cambridge in 1996.

Key words: Optimization, Harwell Subroutine Library, DFP method, Powell’s method, Radial Basis Function Approximation, EDSAC, Ferranti Mercury

Funding Agency: Atomic Energy Authority, United Kingdom

Time frame: 1960's, 1970's, 1980's, 1990's

People:  Karl Menger, Robert Richtmyer, John Curtiss, John Todd, Olga-Taussky Todd, Lipman Bers, Kurt Friedrichs, Thomas Manteuffel

Location: Cambridge University, Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell

Citation:  Michael J. D. Powell, Oral history interview by Philip Davis, 6 April, 2005, Centre for Mathematical Sciences, Cambridge University. Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, Philadelphia, PA

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