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Letter throws new light on the role of wartime O.R.

How OR made the top brass see sense

The file of papers from the 1981 Archives Committee contains eleven letters written between August 1976 and May 1977. There was a brief flurry of correspondence between Sir Charles Goodeve (pictured) and the Society’s Secretary and General Manager, Ray Showell, in August 1976 about the Society’s records of its period of existence as the OR Club (founded in April 1948). This was perhaps because the American management consultant, Joseph McCloskey, had been commissioned by TIMS and ORSA jointly to prepare a ‘history of operational research and management science.’ It seemed important to Goodeve that the Americans should not be able to claim that their Society started first.

The letter below from Goodeve to McCloskey, dated 18th October 1976, was copied to Ray Showell, but the letters from McCloskey to which it was a response are not on file. McCloskey’s book never appeared.

Norman Lawrie


18th October 1976

Dear Joe

Many thanks for your two letters of 22nd and 28th August. By now Peyt Cunningham will probably have reported to you our meeting at the Athenaeum Club. It was a pleasant lunch - I was sorry that I could not get hold of Lord Halsbury and Sir Owen W.J. It was nice to meet Mrs Cunningham.

May I assume that you have access to books and papers describing the early days. I have in front of me the following books:

  1. ‘The Secret War, 1939-1945’, by Gerald Pawle, 1956. (an amusing book but not much in it about O.R.)
  2. ‘The Rise of the Boffins’, by Ronald W Clark, 1962. (full of O.R. and related activities such as Radar).
  3. ‘The Challenge of War’, by Guy Hartcup, 1970. (a collection of stories and the related O.R.)

You probably have read these or others like them.

I enclose a few reprints of papers which may be relevant. They show my interest in using O.R. in the Social Sciences.

As I explained to Peyt, I had little to do with radar or O.R. until about 1942, when I was promoted to a new post as Assistant Controller for Research and Development. This was a difficult post as I had an over-all non-line responsibility for all the R and D in the Navy. Operational Research, however, quite properly came under the operational side of the Navy.

In the early part of the war there were endless disputes between the operating people and the design people. A weapon design is usually full of compromises and the optimum design is an optimum balance between the many conflicting parameters. To get such a balanced design one had to have some idea of the value of the parameters and of the inter-actions between them.

This is where Blackett came in. He and his people examined very carefully the reports of actions and double checked much of the evidence. We arranged that designers from the appropriate Controller’s Department worked with them. The results of this cooperation and the new techniques were most effective. No longer were we asked to produce an anti-aircraft gun that could be trained and fired while passing through the vertical. No longer did we have to attempt to design an airborne depth charge trigger that could be set to fire at any chosen depth between 25 and 500 ft. - two incompatible things. In other words, operational research proved to be an excellent way of getting the ‘staff requirements’ right.

In answer to your enquiry about my involvement, you see I was a user of the results of O.R., not a practitioner. At the end of the war I was imbued with the need for O.R. in my new capacity as director of BISRA, (no legislation!). Indeed the operations of the steel industry turned out to be a fruitful field for O.R. the same was true for coal, rail, road, electricity, textiles etc.

Now to your remaining questions:

1. Your letter of 22nd August.
I agree generally to your sequence of events. A.V. Hill was one of the two Secretaries of the Royal Society for 10 years 1935 to 1945 and was the right man in the right place for science during the war. He is still living, age 90. I think G.T.R. Hill was not related to A.V. but he (G.T.R.) had a useful brother, Air Marshal Sir Roderick Hill. Tizard pronounced his own name with the accent on the first syllable.

2. The Goodeve-Hill memo (see Clark p.56) was for training and the war overtook it. The Air Force adopted it but the Admiralty rejected it, saying “Their Lordships have decided that in the event of war, scientists will be employed as civilians.” They reversed their decision soon after the war had started. I do not think the War Office ever replied. A ‘Central Register’ of scientists was compiled just before war broke out (see Hartcup p.22).

3. The luncheon at the Athenaeum (Autums 1947) led directly to the setting up of the Operational Research Research Society first as a club (Spring 1948) and five years later as a Society. Ray Showell, the Secretary of O.R.S., has most of these dates. There was at first considerable opposition to the setting up of a new society rather than attaching O.R. to, say, the Royal Statistical Society. As we know the five year formative period paid off - by that time most of the opposition had turned to enthusiastic support. A steady flow of papers had come for the O.R. Quarterly. O.R. groups were presenting papers on their work. Decision making in industry, commerce and government was submitting to scientific analysis.

4. Your letter of 28th August.
I have no first hand information about Watson-Watt. I liked him but I know that many did not.

Let me know if I can answer more questions. Are you intending to include anything from other countries? If so, IFORS could probably help. What about examples of ‘swords into plough-shares’?

Yours sincerely
Charles Goodeve

c.c. Mr. R. Showell

First published to members of the Operational Research Society in Inside O.R.March 1999