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Operations Research vis-à-vis Management at Arthur D. Little and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s

  • William Thomas


This article examines the establishment of the field of operations research (OR) at the Arthur D. Little consulting firm and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. OR advocates envisioned the field as a new kind of bureaucratic organ dedicated to general studies of business problems, staffed by trained scientists who could employ sophisticated methods if needed. The crux of their promotional strategy was to use their appreciation of general managerial practice to overcome the tensions to be expected from their claims to apply generic scientific methods to nonscientific activities. However, they discounted possible intellectual competition with established professions. This competition ultimately confined OR's identity to a jurisdiction defined by novel mathematical techniques.



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I am grateful to David Kaiser and Spencer Weart and to the editors and referees of this journal for crucial guidance and comments; to the staff of the MIT Archives and Special Collections, and the National Academies archives; and to John D. C. Little and John Magee for agreeing to interviews. Most of the work on this article was conducted at Harvard University with the support of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, and at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics.

1 On OR scientists' World War II–era perspective of their work as science, see Thomas, William, “The Heuristics of War: Scientific Method and the Founders of Operations Research,” British Journal for the History of Science 40 (June 2007): 251–74. The British and Canadian term is “operational research.” The term “operations analysis” was used by the United States Air Force.

2 Their main initiative was the production of the brochure “Operations Research with Special Reference to Non-Military Applications,” Apr. 1951, available in a self-titled folder in the NRC, Division of Physical Sciences, Committee on Operations Research papers, National Academies Archives, Washington, D.C. (hereafter NA Archives). Many other materials related to the committee's business are to be found here. The proponents also produced a number of promotional articles for scientific audiences, for example, Morse, Philip M., “Must We Always Be Gadgeteers?Physics Today 3 (Dec. 1950): 45.

3 On the history of these techniques, see Gass, Saul and Assad, Arjang, Annotated Timeline of Operations Research: An Informal History (New York, 2005). On the professional history of OR in Britain, see Kirby, Maurice W., Operational Research in War and Peace: The British Experience from the 1930s to 1970 (London, 2003).

4 These comparisons will be stressed in my forthcoming book, tentatively titled Rational Action: The Sciences of Policy in Britain and America, 1940–1960. On technical work at RAND and the Carnegie Institute of Technology, see Judy L. Klein's forthcoming book, Protocols of War and the Mathematical Invasion of Policy Space, 1940–1975. On Russell Ackoff's relations with the OR profession, see Kirby, Maurice W., “The Intellectual Journey of Russell Ackoff: From OR Apostle to OR Apostate,” Journal of the Operational Research Society 54 (Oct. 2003): 1127–40; and Kirby, Maurice W., “Paradigm Change in Operations Research: Thirty Years of Debate,” Operations Research 55 (Jan. 2007): 113. However, Kirby does not stress Churchman and Ackoff's philosophical program.

5 Abbott, Andrew, The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor (Chicago, 1988), 237–38.

6 Hughes, Thomas P., Rescuing Prometheus (New York, 1998), esp. ch. 4.

7 Quote from Fortun, Michael and Schweber, Silvan S., “Scientists and the Legacy of World War II: The Case of Operations Research (OR),” Social Studies of Science 23 (Nov. 1993): 595642, p. 629. They correctly stress the possible lack of novelty of OR as a crucial problem facing its proponents.

8 Also see Waring, Stephen P., Taylorism Transformed: Scientific Management Theory since 1945 (Chapel Hill, 1991), esp. ch. 2; and Waring, Stephen P., “Cold Calculus: The Cold War and Operations Research,” Radical History Review 63 (Fall 1995): 2851. These criticisms seem to be linked to criticisms of mainstream OR led by Russell Ackoff, which ultimately led him to leave the field in favor of “Social Systems Science”; see the works by Kirby in note 4. Waring, Hughes, and Kirby all use Ackoff's criticisms to build their narratives. Another more recent view holds that a similar divide in OR could be drawn geographically, whereby a technical version prevails in the United States, and a general version holds in Europe; see Mirowski, Philip, Machine Dreams: How Economics Became a Cyborg Science (New York, 2002), esp. ch. 4; and Krige, John, American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe (Cambridge, Mass., 2006), esp. ch. 8.

9 McKenna, Christopher D., The World's Newest Profession: Management Consulting in the Twentieth Century (New York, 2006).

10 Solow, Herbert, “Operations Research,” Fortune (Apr. 1951): 105–22.

11 This attitude is particularly visible in the archival files cited in note 2, including the cited brochure and “Proceedings of the Conference on Operations Research held at the University of Illinois, 27 Sept. 1951,” located in a self-titled folder. Maurice Kirby, W., “Operations Research Trajectories: The Anglo-American Experience from the 1940s to the 1990s,” Operations Research 48 (Sept. 2000): 661–70, explicitly rejects the view, held by some members of the OR community in the 1950s, that expert competition in American markets slowed the advance of OR in that country. Kirby observes that advance was also slow in what he views as a comparatively less professionalized Britain. This argument shares many OR proponents' view that existing analytical assistance to managers was generally weak, and thus that the terrain was clear for the intervention of the proponents of OR.

12 OR would continue to have difficulty maintaining a position within various economies of knowledge; see Robinson, Randall S., “The Operations Research Profession: Westward, Look, the Land is Bright,” in Perspectives in Operations Research: Papers in Honor of Saul Gass' 80th Birthday, ed. Alt, Francis B., Fu, Michael C., and Golden, Bruce L. (New York, 2006), 135–52.

13 For history of the firm, see Kahn, E. J., The Problem Solvers: A History of Arthur D. Little, Inc. (Boston, 1986).

14 Sapolsky, Harvey M., Science and the Navy: The History of the Office of Naval Research (Princeton, 1990).

15 John Magee, interview with the author, 11 Apr. 2005, Concord, Mass.

16 Magee later recalled that he was hired as Wissman's “briefcase carrier”; Magee, interview with the author, 11 Apr. 2005. He would later become a driving force behind the OR group, and, ultimately, president and CEO of the firm. For further information, see Gass, Saul I., “John F. Magee,” in Profiles in Operations Research: Pioneers and Innovators, ed. Assad, Arjang A. and Gass, Saul I. (New York: Springer, 2011).

17 Magee, John F., “Operations Research at Arthur D. Little, Inc.: The Early Years,” Operations Research 50 (Jan. 2002): 149–53.

18 Magee, “Arthur D. Little.” Horace Levinson, the head of the NRC committee on OR, was retired but consulted with Arthur D. Little. He had worked in mail-order retailing before joining Bamberger's and Macy's as a research director. See Levinson, Horace C., “Experiences in Commercial Operations Research,” Journal of the Operations Research Society of America 1 (Aug. 1953): 220–39.

20 Ibid.; Magee, John F., “The Effect of Promotional Effort on Sales,” Journal of the Operations Research Society of America 1 (Feb. 1953): 6474.

21 Herrmann, Cyril C. and Magee, John F., “‘Operations Research’ for Management,” Harvard Business Review 31 (July 1953): 100112. On HBR articles as advertising, see McKenna, , Newest Profession, 72. Early ideas about OR at Arthur D. Little prior to the establishment of a group reflected the wartime view; see Industrial Bulletin of Arthur D. Little, Inc., no. 236 (Oct. 1947).

22 One OR practitioner working for the Booz, Allen and Hamilton management consulting firm warned about the potential to clash with business culture in an article for the OR professional journal; Pocock, J. W., “Operations Research and the Management Consultant,” Journal of the Operations Research Society of America 1 (May 1953): 137–44.

23 In This Issue,” Harvard Business Review 31 (July 1953): 712, esp. 8.

24 The article noted the threat “to send the term ‘operations research’ along the way of others, like ‘efficiency engineering,’ which sooner or later became victims of undiscriminating acceptance and careless usage.” Herrmann, and Magee, , “Operations Research,” 112.

25 Ibid., 109, 111.

26 Conveniently, consulting agencies such as Arthur D. Little could be used to “try out operations research before [the company] commits itself permanently,” and to help initiate and organize an internal OR group once the company had decided to go ahead; Herrmann, and Magee, , “Operations Research,” 110.

27 Herrmann, and Magee, , “Operations Research,” 102.

28 Magee, , “Arthur D. Little,” 151.

29 Vassian, Herbert J., “Application of Discrete Variable Servo Theory to Inventory Control,” Journal of the Operations Research Society of America 3 (Aug. 1955): 272–82.

30 Magee, John F., “Guides to Inventory Policy, I. Functions and Lot Sizes,” Harvard Business Review 34 (Jan. 1956): 4960; Magee, John F., “Guides to Inventory Policy, II: Problems of Uncertainty,” Harvard Business Review 34 (Mar. 1956): 103–16; Magee, John F., “Guides to Inventory Policy, III: Anticipating Future Needs,” Harvard Business Review 34 (May 1956): 5770.

31 Magee, , “Guides, I,” 50.

32 Ibid., 50–57, quotes on 52, 56; also Magee, , “Guides, II,” 105.

33 An example would be Arrow, Kenneth J., Harris, Theodore E., and Marschak, Jacob, “Optimal Inventory Policy,” Econometrica 19 (July 1951): 250–72, a classic of the field.

34 Magee, , “Guides, I,” 5860; Magee, , “Guides, III,” 6063; Magee, John F. and Boodman, David M., Production Planning and Inventory Control (New York, 1958), 136–38.

35 Magee, , “Guides, II,” 110–16; see also the discussion of development of inventory policies over a season in Magee, , “Guides, III,” 60.

36 See a memorandum from James R. Killian to George Harrison and Karl Compton, 5 Sept. 1944, Records of the Office of the President (AC 4), box 150, folder 6, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Institute Archives and Special Collections, MIT Libraries, Cambridge, Mass. (hereafter MIT Archives); a series of mostly undated memoranda in the Papers of Philip M. Morse (MC 75, hereafter Morse Papers), box 2, “Institute Committee on O/R” folder, MIT Archives, concerning the establishment of an “operations analysis” activity at MIT. (One item is dated 7 May 1946.) See also a letter from Henry Loomis to Philip Morse, 24 Oct. 1947, Records of the Office of the President, box 150, folder 6, MIT Archives. The British “dean” of OR, physicist Patrick Blackett, was invited to MIT to discuss the possibility of an OR training program in January 1948; see Blackett to Compton, 6 Feb. 1948, Records of the Office of the President, box 32, folder 2, MIT Archives.

37 Operations Evaluation Group memorandum, “A Course on Operations Research,” Morse Papers, box 9, “NRC—Comm on OR” folder, MIT Archives.

38 Ibid., including Appendix D.

39 Ibid., Appendix D. A minimax solution is one that mixes strategies randomly so as to minimize potential losses, or to maximize a minimum gain.

40 Ibid., Appendix D, problems are in Appendix F.

41 Ibid., Appendix D.

42 Harrison, George, “Memorandum of Meeting of the Advisory Committee on the Operations Evaluation Group,” 9 Jan. 1951, Records of the Office of the President, box 165, folder 4, MIT Archives.

43 The representatives were Alan Waterman, research director of the Office of Naval Research, soon to be first director of the National Science Foundation; and Horace Levinson; see notes 2 and 18.

44 On proposals at the foundation of SIM, see memoranda in Records of Julius A. Stratton (AC 132), box 10, “Industrial Management, School of,” folder, MIT Archives; also see Morse Papers, box 10, “Committee on Operations Research (NRC)” folder, MIT Archives, including diary note, “Meeting of Levinson and Waterman with Stratton and Advisory Council of MIT to discuss Operations Research,” 20 Nov. 1950, and a letter from Stratton to Horace Levinson, 1 Dec. 1950. On subsequent development of the plan, see letter from Levinson to Stratton, 1 Mar. 1951; and Levinson, “Memorandum of Telephone Conversation with Dr. Stratton,” 27 Apr. 1951, both in “PS: Com on Operations Research 1950–1951, Operations Research Center: Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Proposed” folder, NA Archives. MIT's current Operations Research Center does not directly stem from this proposal.

45 Brooks had evidently not been privy to Arthur D. Little's work for Sears.

46 Memorandum from Hill, T. M. to Brooks, Dean, “Operations Research,” 9 Jan. 1952, Records of Julius A. Stratton, box 12, “Operations Research—P. M. Morse” folder, MIT Archives.

48 We know that Hill at least proposed a course entitled “Quantitative Analysis of Industrial Problems” to MIT's curriculum committee; see memorandum from R. A. Knight to Dean Brooks, 11 Mar. 1952, Records of Julius A. Stratton, box 12, “Operations Research—P. M. Morse” folder, MIT Archives. SIM would go on to hire engineer Jay Forrester to develop a novel management pedagogy; see Thomas, William and Williams, Lambert, “The Epistemologies of Non-Forecasting Simulations, Part I: Industrial Dynamics and Management Pedagogy at MIT,” Science in Context 22 (June 2009): 245–70.

49 See memorandum from Philip Morse to Pennell Brooks, 10 July 1952; memorandum from Brooks to Morse, 16 Sept. 1952; memorandum from Morse to Julius Stratton, 1 Oct. 1952, emphasis in original; memorandum from Stratton to Morse, 15 Dec. 1952, formally authorizing the establishment of the committee; all in Records of Julius A. Stratton, box 12, “Operations Research—P. M. Morse” folder, MIT Archives.

50 Philip Morse's reply to ORSA Education Committee survey, 5 Jan. 1953, Records of the Office of the President, box 165, folder 5, MIT Archives; Philip Morse discusses the OR program at MIT in Morse, Philip M., In at the Beginnings: A Physicist's Life (Cambridge, Mass., 1977), ch. 9; on work at Arthur D. Little, Magee, interview with the author, 11 Apr. 2005.

51 Morse, , Beginnings, 296; on Little's initial interests, see Institute Committee on Operations Research meeting minutes, 27 May 1953, Morse Papers, box 2, “Committee on OR Minutes” folder, MIT Archives. For biographical info on Little, see Hauser, John R. and Urban, Glen L., “John D. C. Little,” in Profiles in Operations Research: Pioneers and Innovators, ed. Assad, Arjang A. and Gass, Saul I. (New York: Springer, 2011).

52 Little, John Dutton Conant, “Use of Storage Water in a Hydroelectric System,” PhD diss., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1954; see also Little, John D. C., “The Use of Storage Water in a Hydroelectric System,” Journal of the Operations Research Society of America 3 (May 1955): 187–97.

53 Little, , “Storage Water” (1955), 195.

54 “Minutes of the Planning Committee for the 1953 Summer Session in O/R,” 22 Apr. 1953, Morse Papers, box 2, “Committee on OR Minutes” folder, MIT Archives.

56 Institute Committee on OR meeting minutes, 6 Oct. 1954, Morse Papers, box 2, “Committee on OR Minutes” folder, MIT Archives.

57 Morse, , Beginnings, 292.

58 Memorandum from T. M. Hill to Dean Brooks, 10 May 1954, Morse Papers, box 10, “ORSA Corres” folder, MIT Archives.

59 Memorandum from Philip Morse to T. V. Hill [sic], 14 May 1954, Morse Papers, box 10, “ORSA Corres” folder, MIT Archives.

60 See Morse, , Beginnings, 296, 355.

61 See, for example, Morse, Philip M., “Where is the New Blood?Journal of the Operations Research Society of America 3 (Nov. 1955): 383–87; Morse, Philip M., “ORSA Twenty-Five Years Later,” Operations Research 25 (Mar. 1977): 186–88, recapitulated much the same complaint. Also see Magee, John F. and Ernst, Martin L., “Progress in Operations Research: The Challenge of the Future,” in Progress in Operations Research, vol. 1, ed. Ackoff, Russell L. (New York, 1961), 465–91.

62 Chandler, Alfred D., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, Mass., 1977).

63 The following are examples. On the professionalization of selling, Friedman, Walter A., Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America (Cambridge, Mass., 2004); on “human relations” and human resources, Kaufman, Bruce E., Managing the Human Factor: The Early Years of Human Resource Management in American Industry (Ithaca, 2008); on systems engineering, Hughes, Thomas, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880–1930 (Baltimore, 1983); on quality control at Telephone, Bell, Klein, Judy L., “Economics for a Client: The Case of Statistical Quality Control and Sequential Analysis,” in Toward a History of Applied Economics, ed. Backhouse, Roger E. and Biddle, Jeff (Durham, 2000), 2769; and Miranti, Paul J., “Corporate Learning and Quality Control at the Bell System, 1877–1929,” Business History Review 79 (Spring 2005): 3972.

64 The formulation of jurisdictions of expertise is the main feature of the sociology of professionalism in Abbott, System. Ethical–intellectual concerns are addressed from a theoretical standpoint in Lipartito, Kenneth J. and Miranti, Paul J., “Professions and Organizations in Twentieth-Century America,” Social Science Quarterly 79 (June 1998): 301–20. Also see Haskell, Thomas L., “Professionalism versus Capitalism: Tawney, Durkheim, and C. S. Peirce on the Disinterestedness of Professional Communities,” in The Authority of Experts: Studies in History and Theory, ed. Haskell, Thomas L. (Bloomington, Ind. 1984), 180225. The ethical dimensions of the work of “men of science” as “professionals” in the nineteenth century have been discussed in Lucier, Paul, “The Professional and the Scientist in Nineteenth-Century America,” Isis 100 (Dec. 2009): 699732.

65 Johnson, H. Thomas and Kaplan, Robert S., Relevance Lost: The Rise and Fall of Management Accounting (Boston 1987); and Miranti, Paul J., Accountancy Comes of Age: The Development of an American Profession (Chapel Hill, 1990). On the relation between cost accounting, “management engineering,” and the subsequent rise of management consulting, see McKenna, Newest Profession.

66 Much of the vast scholarship on Taylorism has been collected in Wood, John C. and Wood, Michael C., eds., F. W. Taylor: Critical Evaluations in Business and Management, 4 vols. (New York, 2002).

67 The concern is a staple of the literature on Taylorism and other expert sciences. On the rise of expert or “professional” culture as a development that follows the rise of managerial organization in sequence, see Balogh, Brian, “Reorganizing the Organizational Synthesis: Federal-Professional Relations in Modern America,” Studies in American Political Development 5 (Spring 1991): 119–72.

68 Abbott, , System, 87 and 98113. Abbott uses the terms “dominant” and “subordinate,” or “predator” and “prey,” but I prefer terms connoting the breadth or generality of expertise purported rather than its power. Specialization of expertise also constitutes a form of power that can threaten the relevance of more general kinds of expertise within specialized jurisdictions.

Operations Research vis-à-vis Management at Arthur D. Little and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s

  • William Thomas


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