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John Tukey

John Tukey

American mathematician
John Tukey
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American mathematician
A.K.A. John Wilder Tukey, John W. Tukey, John W Tukey
Was Politician Mathematician Statistician Professor Educator Computer scientist Chemist
From United States of America
Type Academia Mathematics Technology Science Politics
Gender male
Birth 16 June 1915, New Bedford, USA
Death 26 July 2000, New Brunswick, USA (aged 85 years)
Star sign Gemini
The details


John Wilder Tukey (/ˈtki/; June 16, 1915 – July 26, 2000) was an American mathematician best known for development of the Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) algorithm and box plot. The Tukey range test, the Tukey lambda distribution, the Tukey test of additivity, and the Teichmüller–Tukey lemma all bear his name. He is also credited with coining the term 'bit'.


Tukey was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1915 to a Latin teacher father and a private tutor mother. He was mainly taught by his mother and only went to regular classes for special subjects like French. Tukey obtained a B.A. in 1936 and M.Sc. in 1937, in chemistry, from Brown University, before moving to Princeton University where he received a Ph.D. in mathematics.

During World War II, Tukey worked at the Fire Control Research Office and collaborated with Samuel Wilks and William Cochran. He is claimed to have helped design the U-2 spy plane. After the war, he returned to Princeton, dividing his time between the university and AT&T Bell Laboratories. He became a full professor at 35 and founding chairman of the Princeton statistics department in 1965.

Among many contributions to civil society, Tukey served on a committee of the American Statistical Association that produced a report challenging the conclusions of the Kinsey Report, Statistical Problems of the Kinsey Report on Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.

From 1960 to 1980, Tukey helped design the NBC television network polls used to predict and analyze elections. He was also a consultant to the Educational Testing Service, the Xerox Corporation and Merck & Company.

He was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Nixon in 1973. He was awarded the IEEE Medal of Honor in 1982 "For his contributions to the spectral analysis of random processes and the fast Fourier transform (FFT) algorithm".

Tukey retired in 1985. He died in New Brunswick, New Jersey, on July 26, 2000.

Scientific contributions

Early in his career Tukey worked on developing statistical methods for computers at Bell Labs where he invented the term "bit" in 1947.

His statistical interests were many and varied. He is particularly remembered for his development with James Cooley of the Cooley–Tukey FFT algorithm. In 1970, he contributed significantly to what is today known as the jackknife estimation—also termed Quenouille–Tukey jackknife. He introduced the box plot in his 1977 book, "Exploratory Data Analysis".

Tukey's range test, the Tukey lambda distribution, Tukey's test of additivity, Tukey's lemma, and the Tukey window all bear his name. He is also the creator of several little-known methods such as the trimean and median-median line, an easier alternative to linear regression.

In 1974, he developed, with Jerome H. Friedman, the concept of the projection pursuit.

Statistical practice

He also contributed to statistical practice and articulated the important distinction between exploratory data analysis and confirmatory data analysis, believing that much statistical methodology placed too great an emphasis on the latter.

Though he believed in the utility of separating the two types of analysis, he pointed out that sometimes, especially in natural science, this was problematic and termed such situations uncomfortable science.

A. D. Gordon offered the following summary of Tukey's principles for statistical practice:

... the usefulness and limitation of mathematical statistics; the importance of having methods of statistical analysis that are robust to violations of the assumptions underlying their use; the need to amass experience of the behaviour of specific methods of analysis in order to provide guidance on their use; the importance of allowing the possibility of data's influencing the choice of method by which they are analysed; the need for statisticians to reject the role of "guardian of proven truth", and to resist attempts to provide once-for-all solutions and tidy over-unifications of the subject; the iterative nature of data analysis; implications of the increasing power, availability, and cheapness of computing facilities; the training of statisticians.

Statistical terms

Tukey coined many statistical terms that have become part of common usage, but the two most famous coinages attributed to him were related to computer science.

While working with John von Neumann on early computer designs, Tukey introduced the word "bit" as a contraction of "binary digit". The term "bit" was first used in an article by Claude Shannon in 1948.

In 2000, Fred Shapiro, a librarian at the Yale Law School, published a letter revealing that Tukey's 1958 paper "The Teaching of Concrete Mathematics" contained the earliest known usage of the term "software" found in a search of JSTOR's electronic archives, predating the OED's citation by two years. This led many to credit Tukey with coining the term, particularly in obituaries published that same year, although Tukey never claimed credit for any such coinage. In 1995, Paul Niquette claimed he had originally coined the term in October 1953, although he could not find any documents supporting his claim. The earliest known publication of the term "software" in an engineering context was in August 1953 by Richard R. Carhart, in a RAND Corporation research memorandum.


The collected works of John W Tukey, edited by William S. Cleveland
  • Brillinger, David R., ed. (1984). Volume I: Time series, 1949–1964. Wadsworth, Inc. ISBN 978-0-534-03303-3. OCLC 10998116.
  • Brillinger, David R., ed. (1985). Volume II: Time series, 1965–1984. Wadsworth, Inc. ISBN 978-0-534-03304-0. OCLC 159731367.
  • Jones, Lyle V., ed. (1985). Volume III: Philosophy and principles of data analysis, 1949–1964. Wadsworth & Brooks/Cole. ISBN 978-0-534-03305-7. OCLC 159731367.
  • Jones, Lyle V., ed. (1986). Volume IV: Philosophy and principles of data analysis, 1965–1986. Wadsworth & Brooks/Cole. ISBN 978-0-534-05101-3. OCLC 165832503.
  • Cleveland, William S., ed. (1988). Volume V: Graphics, 1965–1985. Wadsworth & Brooks/Cole. ISBN 978-0-534-05102-0. OCLC 230023465.
  • Mallows, Colin L., ed. (1990). Volume VI: More mathematical, 1938–1984. Wadsworth & Brooks/Cole. ISBN 978-0-534-05103-7. OCLC 232966724.
  • Cox, David R., ed. (1992). Volume VII: Factorial and ANOVA, 1949–1962. Wadsworth & Brooks/Cole. ISBN 978-0-534-05104-4. OCLC 165366083.
  • Braun, Henry I., ed. (1994). Volume VIII: Multiple comparisons, 1949–1983. Chapman & Hall/CRC Press. ISBN 978-0-412-05121-0. OCLC 165099761.
About John Tukey
The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 26 Mar 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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