Image of computer code

John Wilder Tukey

  • National Medal of Science
  • Mathematics And Computer Science

For his studies in mathematical and theoretical statistics, particularly his pioneering work on broad analysis and synthesis problems of complex systems, and for his outstanding contributions to the applications of statistics to the physical, social, and engineering sciences.

John Wilder Tukey liked to argue with other people, and his chosen field – statistics – presented opportunities for just that. “The best thing about being a statistician,” he said, “is that you get to play in everyone’s backyard.”

In his field, Tukey is best known for inventing the box plot – also called the stem-and-leaf diagram – which is used to plot the minimum, first quartile, median, third quartile and maximum in a set of data.

In addition to working with data, Tukey dabbled in various fields, helping to invent the U-2 spy plane and creating several common technology terms used today.

While working at Bell Laboratories, Tukey coined the word “bit,” a shortened version of “binary digit” – the 1’s and 0’s used in computer programming.

Three decades before Microsoft was founded, Tukey – discussing the programs on which electronic calculators ran – also coined the word “software.”