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Over sixty years ago, in April 1948, the Operational Research Club was established in London as the first OR association in the world. Five years later the OR Club became the OR Society

How the world of OR societies began

by Nigel Cummings

(Right: Sir Charles Goodeve, founder chairman of the OR Club)
The term Operational Research would appear to have been coined for the first time in 1938, as a descriptive term for the use of scientists to assess, at first hand, military situations and the deployment of devices therein. An example of this was the use of scientists in the process of evaluation of radar as an aid to air defence up to and including the war years.

During the war Operational Research sections were set up in various branches of the British armed forces. These were followed by the establishment of similar sections in the services of the USA and Europe. After gaining distinction throughout the war years, the advocates of Operational Research sought to secure its future in peacetime. There followed a period from 1945 until the mid seventies (described as 'the golden age' of Operational Research) when use of the new methodologies expanded rapidly into nationalised industries, civil government and the corporate sector.

Although Operational Research may have been born in 1938, it was to be another ten years before it found itself a home body! This came about when, in the autumn 1947, a group of distinguished gentlemen met for an informal dinner at the Athenaeum Club in London. At this dinner, a momentous decision was made - to form an Operational Research Club. Those at the dinner included such luminaries as Sir Charles Goodeve, Professor P.M.S. Blackett (later Lord Blackett), Dr C. Gordon and Sir Charles Tizard. The OR Club, the world's first body set up to cater for the Operational Research profession, was duly inaugurated fifty years ago, in April 1948, with an initial membership of fifty. The chair was held by Sir Charles Goodeve, with Mr J.A. Jukes as the first secretary.

It has often been said that the word 'club' was deliberately chosen, for a limited period only, because of the connotation of exclusivity. It was intended that during the limited lifetime of the Club clarification of what was meant by the term Operational Research could be achieved - and ambitious aim, perhaps.. However, in a communication received by the OR Society from Sir Charles Goodeve and dated 16th August 1976, Sir Charles painted a slightly different perspective: "As you know we had to call it a club first of all to get over certain legal difficulties with regard to membership. We thought these difficulties would be solved in a couple of years, but in the event it took five or six years. However the time was not wasted because we got the Quarterly (the Operational Research Quarterly, the world's first OR journal, which later became JORS - Ed.) going and our constitution finally settled.'

The main activities of the Club were to hold scientific meetings and, from 1950, to produce a quarterly journal. The journal was financed in a way which was considered unusual for the time, revenue being raised by a series of lectures arranged by University College London. These lectures made a considerable profit as they were hugely over subscribed, and because the lecturers waived their fees. The surplus was placed at the disposal of the Club to fund the official quarterly journal.

Volume 1, No 1 of the Operational Research Quarterly was duly published in March 1950 - the first editors were Max Davies and Roger T. Eddison. In the editorial notes of that first issue, the reasoning behind the quarterly is clearly set out. 'The main purpose of the ORQ is to assemble in one place as much as possible of the information that OR workers now find (or fail to find) scattered widely over the very large body of the scientific and technical literature. The method is to provide a quarterly collection of abstracts of relevant papers and articles, taken from as wide a field as possible.' The first article to appear in the ORQ was 'Operational Research' by Professor P.M.S. Blackett. The Quarterly continued as such until 1978, after which time it was rechristened the Journal of the Operational Research Society with twelve annual issues.

Three years after that first edition of ORQ, the club gained the status of a society. During the period running up to this there had been considerable opposition to the setting up of a society, indeed there appears to have been a consensus that Operational Research should be attached to something like the Royal Statistical Society. Fortunately the five year formative period paid off - by the time the society was formed, most of the opposition had turned to enthusiastic support.

After this transformation into the Operational Research Society, full membership of the society could only be obtained by those people coming up to fixed levels of qualification. Its first chairman was Sir Owen Wansbrough-Jones, and the first hon secretary at that time was Pat Rivett.

By 1955 interest in Operational Research had spread to most western countries. Membership levels grew steadily, the original fifty had swelled to a total of around 1250 members in 1964, about 40% of which were qualified. Membership of the Society plateaued at around 3,000 in the early seventies and has remained at roughly the same level ever since.

How was OR perceived?

Professor P.M.S. Blackett was one of the first scientists to define the essential elements of Operational Research. In October 1941 he wrote a Report on Operational Research which is considered by many to be the original 'definition of Operational Research'. Of the use of scientists at the operational level he said;

'The object of having scientists in close touch with operations is to enable operational staffs to obtain scientific advice on those matters which are not handled by the service technical establishments... Operational staff provide the scientists with the operational outlook and data. The scientists apply scientific methods of analysis to this data, and are thus able to give useful advice. The main field of their activity is clearly the analysis of actual operations, using as data the material to be found in an operations room, e.g. all signals, track charts, combat reports, meteorological information, etc. . . .'

In 1947 Kittel described OR thus: 'Operations Research is a scientific method for providing executive departments with a quantitative basis for decisions.' A year later Sir Charles Goodeve summed it up as 'quantitative common-sense' . By 1962 the definition had been expanded to: 'Operational Research is the attack of modern science on complex problems arising in the direction and management of large systems of men, machines, material and money in industry, business, government and defence...' Nowadays the OR Society steers clear of formal definitions, preferring to illustrate what OR does by means of examples.

The Operational Research Society today

Fifty years on, the OR Society continues to be an innovator and leader in its field. Today the Society has over 3000 members in 53 countries who receive a wide range of services and benefits. The Society's training programme is the most comprehensive OR training programme on offer anywhere in the world. Its annual conference is the largest national conference outside the USA, and its series of Young OR conferences, inaugurated in 1980, is the world's leading conference for young OR workers.

OR Newsletter is the world's leading monthly OR magazine, carrying news, features on OR methods, pesonalities and events, debate and a comprehensive noticeboard section providing information on what's happening in the OR world. The Journal of the Operational Research Society is internationally respected. The Society also publishes OR Insight, which publishes readable accounts of OR in action, providing interesting reading for practitioners and excellent case material for teachers.

The Society has recently upgraded its website to provide several advanced features including a password-protected Members' Enclosure which offers Mini Home Pages where members can enter their details and use powerful search facilities to find other members; a Multi Forum - a multi-stranded live interactive discussion forum; OR Newsletter and (shortly) the Journal and OR Insight. The website also carries, in the public area, some of the high quality careers information and publicity materials which the Society produces. Secure virtual shopping facilities enable courses and conferences to be booked online. The site also carries sophisticated advertising facilities.

The Society runs an active publicity programme to promote OR to senior managers and captains, based on an occasional publication 'Issue Explorer'; and has developed a multimedia software programme to explain OR to schoolchildren. Both of these items can be downloaded from the website.

References

  • The Growth of Operational Research - 1939/64 - Sir Charles Goodeve
  • The Origins and Diffusion of Operational Research in the UK - Maurice Kirby and Rebecca Capey
  • Various letters from Sir Charles Goodeve to the society. (Sent during 1976)

I would like to offer thanks to Maurice Kirby , Lancaster University, Provost of Colleges and Student Relations. Without his diligent searching of archive material, completion of this feature article would not have been possible. NC

First published to members of the Operational Research Society in Inside O.R. April 1997