History of OR

Operational research (OR), also known as operations research, has its roots in the early 20th century, particularly during the World Wars. It emerged as a response to the complex logistical and strategic problems faced by military organisations. Here's a brief history:

World Wars: The origins of OR can be traced back to the British military efforts during the Great War and the Second World War. There are many examples, such as how the British Royal Air Force established the Operational Research Section to analyse and optimise military operations. Teams of scientists, mathematicians and engineers were tasked with solving various military problems, such as improving aircraft performance, optimising bomber tactics, and minimising losses. 

The birth of operational research: The term "operational research" was coined in 1940 by A.P. Rowe, a British Air Ministry scientist. The phrase referred to the application of scientific methods to analyse and improve the effectiveness of military operations.

The expansion: OR gained prominence beyond military applications after the war. Organisations began to recognise its potential to solve complex problems in various sectors, including manufacturing, transportation, logistics, finance, healthcare, and telecommunications. 

Methodological developments: OR evolved rapidly in the post-war years with the development of mathematical modelling, optimisation techniques, simulation, queuing theory, game theory, and decision analysis. These tools enabled OR practitioners to address a wide range of real-world problems more effectively. 

Academic recognition: OR became an established field of study with the founding of academic departments and professional societies dedicated to its advancement. The Operational Research Society (ORS) was founded in the United Kingdom in 1948, followed by similar organisations worldwide.

Applications in business: OR techniques found widespread adoption in business and industry during the latter half of the 20th century. Companies utilised OR to optimise production processes, inventory management, supply chain logistics, scheduling, and resource allocation, leading to improvements in efficiency and profitability.

Further developments: OR continued to evolve with advancements in computing technology, data analytics, and artificial intelligence. Operational researchers began integrating techniques such as machine learning and big data analytics into their toolkit to tackle increasingly complex problems. 

Contemporary applications: Today, OR is applied across various domains, including transportation planning, healthcare management, energy systems optimisation, environmental sustainability, and disaster response. It remains a critical discipline for decision-making in both the public and private sectors. 

Overall, the history of operational research reflects its journey from its wartime origins to becoming a multidisciplinary field essential for solving complex problems in diverse domains.

Want to know more about a pioneer of operational research?

Patrick Blackett – pioneer of OR

Who was Patrick Blackett? Physicist, Nobel prizewinner and one-time president of the Royal Society, Patrick Blackett was one of the pioneers of operational research (OR) during the second world war, when he advocated for the employment of scientists to advise on matters of strategy and tactics to great effect.

Since the war, OR has spread into business, government, public services, education, defence and beyond, improving performance and helping people make evidence-based decisions. Blackett's fame does not match up to his extraordinary achievements, so this Draw My Life raises the profile of a remarkable individual whose legacy of operational research continues to shape our lives to this day.