William Kingdon Clifford FRS (4 May 1845 – 3 March 1879) was an English mathematician and philosopher. Building on the work of Hermann Grassmann, he introduced what is now termed geometric algebra, a special case of the Clifford algebra named in his honour. The operations of geometric algebra have the effect of mirroring, rotating, translating, and mapping the geometric objects that are being modelled to new positions. Clifford algebras in general and geometric algebra in particular have been of ever increasing importance to mathematical physics, geometry, and computing. Clifford was the first to suggest that gravitation might be a manifestation of an underlying geometry. In his philosophical writings he coined the expression mind-stuff.
Born at Exeter, William Clifford showed great promise at school. He went on to King's College London (at age 15) and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was elected fellow in 1868, after being second wrangler in 1867 and second Smith's prizeman.Being second was a fate he shared with others who became famous mathematicians, including William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and James Clerk Maxwell. In 1870, he was part of an expedition to Italy to observe the solar eclipse of December 22, 1870. During that voyage he survived a shipwreck along the Sicilian coast.
In 1871, he was appointed professor of mathematics and mechanics at University College London, and in 1874 became a fellow of the Royal Society. He was also a member of the London Mathematical Society and the Metaphysical Society.
On 7 April 1875 Clifford married Lucy Lane, with whom he had two children. Clifford enjoyed entertaining children and wrote a collection of fairy stories, The Little People.
In 1876, Clifford suffered a breakdown, probably brought on by overwork. He taught and administered by day, and wrote by night. A half-year holiday in Algeria and Spain allowed him to resume his duties for 18 months, after which he collapsed again. He went to the island of Madeira to recover, but died there of tuberculosis after a few months, leaving a widow with two children.
Clifford and his wife are buried in London's Highgate Cemetery, near the graves of George Eliot and Herbert Spencer, just north of the grave of Karl Marx.
The academic journal Advances in Applied Clifford Algebras publishes on Clifford's legacy in kinematics and abstract algebra.