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Background to Blackett Memorial Lectures

Since 1975 the Operational Research Society's Annual Lecture has been known as the Blackett Memorial Lecture in honour of Patrick, Lord Blackett. A physicist, Nobel prizewinner and one-time president of the Royal Society, Blackett was one of the pioneers of Operational Research (O.R.) during World War 2, when he advocated the employment of scientists to advise on matters of strategy and tactics.

Blackett set out his view of Operational Research as follows. "The records of some war operation (e.g. air attacks on U-boats for the previous six months) are taken as the data ... The scientists apply scientific methods of analysis to these data, and are thus able to give useful advice ... to improve the operational results."

The use of Operational Research achieved remarkable success during World War 2 in such areas as the effective use of radar, and - perhaps Blackett's own greatest contribution - raising the percentage of attacked U-boats that were actually sunk from around 2% to 45%. These successes led to the application of O.R. for civilian purposes after the war.

An Anecdote

In 1943 Britain had gained the upper hand in the U-boat war when the enemy suddenly discovered how to listen to our radar, enabling them to warn their submarines to dive in plenty of time. U-boat sinkings fell to zero. Blackett and his Operational Research colleagues worked out that if we could concentrate enough aircraft in certain areas, the submarines in those areas would have to dive so often that they would exhaust their air and batteries and would then have to remain on the surface, where they were vulnerable to attack.

To assemble sufficient aircraft to implement the strategy required the diversion of several squadrons from Bomber Command to Coastal Command, a proposal that was fiercely resisted by Air Chief Marshal "Bomber" Harris, who demanded of Churchill, "Are we fighting this war with weapons or the slide rule?" Churchill puffed on his cigar and replied, "That's a good idea. Let's try the slide rule." The results of the strategy turned out almost exactly as Blackett and his colleagues had predicted.

For further information about the history of Operational Research, please see History of O.R.