History of The OR Society

The term 'operational research' would appear to have been coined for the first time in 1938 as a descriptive term for the application of science to military operations in order to improve them. Our 'ORigin Story' video highlights two of the better-known examples - optimising transatlantic convoys to diminish the u-boat threat, and the integration of radar into the wider air defence network.

During the war, operational research sections were set up in various branches of the British Armed Forces. Following this, similar sections were established in forces in the USA and Europe. After gaining distinction throughout the war years, operational researchers applied the new methodologies in nationalised industries, civil government and the corporate sector.

A decision over dinner

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 in the autumn of 1947 at an informal dinner at the Athenaeum Club in London where a momentous decision was made: to form an operational research club. Those at the dinner included such luminaries as Sir Charles Goodeve, Professor Patrick 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 in April 1948 with an initial membership of fifty.

Why use the word 'club'?

It has often been said that the word 'club' was deliberately chosen, for a limited period only, because of the connotation of exclusivity. However, in a communication received by The OR Society from Sir Charles Goodeve and dated 16 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.

Sir Charles Goodeve

Sir Charles Goodeve

A clear mission

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 was 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 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.

The club evolves

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.

A global movement

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. Membership of the society is currently around 3,100.

Doing what it says on the tin

In October 1941  Professor Patrick Blackett wrote what is considered by many to be the original 'definition of operational research':

"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 American physicist Charles 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.

Our 'Draw My Life' animation about Lord Patrick Blackett, a true pioneer of Operational Research.

The Operational Research Society today

The OR Society continues to be an innovator and leader in its field. Today the society has around 3,100 members in 53 countries who receive a wide range of services and benefits. The society's training programme is one of the most comprehensive OR training programmes in the world. Its annual conference is the largest national conference outside the USA, and its series of New to OR conferences is the world's leading conference for those at the start of their careers.

Inside OR is the society's monthly OR magazine, carrying news, features on OR methods, personalities 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.

Diverse delegates in discussion at OR59