Cornell University


OR&IE:  Scientific Management for the Information Age

Cornell was a pioneer in industrial engineering education – it was among the first universities to offer courses in IE more than 100 years ago, and awarded the first Ph.D. in IE in 1933 – and the current School of OR&IE traces its roots to the beginnings of industrial engineering. There have been vast changes in both the areas of application and the methodological tools, but even in the early twentieth century, when industrial engineering implied noisy workplaces filled with heavy machinery, Cornell graduates didn’t expect to stay on the factory floor for long.  They rolled up their sleeves, learned to watch their fingers, and looked for opportunities to make the system work better for all concerned. That can-do approach and the future-oriented training to match has been the hallmark of industrial engineering at Cornell, although the name of the program and its content have changed and evolved along the way.

 Dexter Kimball, Machinist and Educator

The first courses in industrial engineering were taught in Cornell’s Sibley College of the Mechanic Arts by Dexter Kimball, who later became the first dean of the newly consolidated College of Engineering in 1920.

Kimball was twenty-eight years old and a first-class machinist at San Francisco’s Union Iron Works when he quit his job and enrolled in the recently opened (1891) Stanford University. At first, the Stanford freshman felt he had “made a great mistake in wasting those years working in shops.”  Subsequently he came to recognize that shop work was an essential part of his education.

In 1904 Kimball, then a full professor in Sibley College, put together a new course he intended to call “Economics of Production.”  When his dean objected that this was “too high-brow,” Kimball changed the name to “Works Administration” – and taught about the economics of production for the first time at an American university.  In 1913, Kimball turned his lectures from “Works Administration” into the textbook, Principles of Industrial Organization.

Andrew Schultz, Jr., Cornell to Colonel and Back

In 1914 the Sibley College created a Department of Industrial Engineering, and, a year later, introduced an option in Industrial Engineering for seniors. In 1931, eleven years after Sibley College was absorbed into the consolidated College of Engineering as the Sibley School of Mechanical Engineering, a Bachelor of Science in Administrative Engineering curriculum was introduced in both Mechanical Engineering and Electrical Engineering. In 1935, Civil Engineering followed suit. For the time being, the title “Administrative Engineering” had replaced “Industrial Engineering,” but the titles were roughly synonymous. The Administrative Engineering curriculum in Mechanical Engineering had been created by a professor named Johnny R. Bangs, Jr., who was hired out of his Ph.D. studies by Dean Kimball.

In April 1933, industrial engineering pioneer Lillian Gilbreth (whose large family was later the subject of the book and film “Cheaper by the Dozen”) visited Cornell to address the National Conference of the Intercollegiate Association of Women Students.  She said that “The college woman’s chief responsibility is to hold to her beliefs, and make others believe that educated women are of use in the community.”  Dean Kimball also spoke to the conference.  Gilbreth visited Cornell on several occasions over the years - ORIE Ph.D. alumnus Linus Schrage recalls that in the early 1960’s, when she was in her eighties, Gilbreth spoke to ORIE students.  

In 1936, Kimball’s last year as Dean, one of the recipients of the B.S. in Administrative Engineering from the Sibley School was Andrew S. Schultz, Jr. Like Kimball, Schultz was to have a profound impact on the development of Cornell’s Engineering College, and, especially on the development of Operations Research as an academic discipline in the U.S. and as a strong academic unit at Cornell. Schultz received his Ph.D. at Cornell in 1941, and returned in 1946 as an assistant professor. Schultz served as head of the Department of Industrial Engineering and Administration from 1951 to 1963, when he became Dean of the College of Engineering.

Between the completion of his Ph.D. in 1941 and his appointment as a faculty member in 1946, Schultz served in the U.S. Army as chief of section in the Industrial Service, Ammunition Division, Office of the Chief of Ordinance.  There, according to an oral history he recorded, he “had the responsibility, ultimately, of maintaining liaison with a great many different people in coordinating and scheduling the productive activities of many plants and arsenals.”  In the Army he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. 

By the time he returned to Cornell in 1946 to join the faculty, Schultz had a firm appreciation of the potential of Industrial Engineering and OR. He saw the basically descriptive or qualitative discipline of industrial/administrative engineering that he had studied being transformed into a powerful, more mathematical field.  He also obtained an IBM “card programmer calculator” from the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory, which had upgraded their equipment.  

During WWII, Cornell’s engineering faculty had adopted a five year curriculum, and Schultz was assigned to adjust the Mechanical Engineering program from four to five years.  In an oral history talk (Schultz 1991)  he recalled that “one of the new aspects of it was the institution of a project, which could be either an individual or a group project, but projects focused in some way on the design activity of the engineer… we spent a lot of time designing industrial - real life industrial - on-site projects for our students. And as a result, when the first class came into its fifth year, which was in the year 1950-51. Why, we had a program already adopted and planned, and were able to start off with our first projects… anywhere from five to 20 projects, depending upon their size of the problems and the numbers of students participating in each.”   

By 1965, Cornell Engineering had reverted to a four year undergraduate curriculum and awarded a Master of Engineering (M.Eng.) degree for the optional project-oriented fifth year, initially intended for  Cornell B.S. graduates only.  Some of these students remained on campus for a sixth year, earning an MBA at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Business in just one year due to the skills they had acquired as engineering undergraduates.  During the remainder of the century, the M.Eng. program drew an increasing percentage of students with undergraduate degrees from elsewhere in the US  and overseas and from different fields such as electrical engineering, materials science, and economics.  Over time, the program added concentrations in areas such as manufacturing, strategic operations, financial engineering, information technology, and data analytics.   

After hiring new faculty in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Administration, Schultz recognized the need to encourage government to modify its goals towards manufacturing and to gain support from the government.  In his oral history, Schultz recalled loading up his car with five other faculty members and driving to Washington, DC, where the six had two connecting rooms, three beds in each.  He had made appointments in various bureaus, including the Naval Research Office and the National Science Foundation, and promoted support for engineering.  “Our faculty had learned the way,” he said, “and subsequently we began to derive some benefits from this type of proselytization,” he said.    

The Introduction of Computers, and The Emergence of Operations Research

In 1953 Schultz took his first sabbatical in Chevy Chase, MD at the Operations Research Office of The Johns Hopkins University (ORO).   There he was exposed to the most modern computers available at that time, and realized that they “made possible simulation of the various systems” involved in manufacturing.  As a result, Schultz was instrumental in bringing the first computer to Cornell, and he continued to promote computers as vital tools in research and education. (In 1965, as Dean of Engineering, Schultz oversaw creation of the Department of Computer Science, the first Cornell department to be part of both Engineering and Arts and Sciences.)  The following year, Cornell hosted a symposium to define criteria for education in operations research, attended by many pioneers in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research, including Ellis A. Johnson, head of ORO.   

With the consolidation in the 1950’s of Cornell Engineering to a new quadrangle on the south side of campus, ORIE’s predecessor units moved to Upson Hall, built in 1956. The buildings around this quadrangle were clad with  thick ceramic tile, each in a different color. Upson’s tile was yellow, a color that was preserved in 2015 when the entire building was stripped bare, completely renovated, and reclad in gray terra cotta with a vertical yellow stripe along some of the windows as apparent homage to the original design.  Most of ORIE had relocated to the adjacent Rhodes Hall when it was built in 1990, with the rest moving there early in the 21st century.

Until 1961, industrial engineering (and its namesakes) existed first as a curricular option only, then as a smaller unit within Mechanical Engineering. A separate Department of Industrial Engineering and Administration – along with a graduate field called Industrial Engineering and Operations Research – was formed in 1961. This was the first appearance of “operations research” in the name of a unit or graduate field at Cornell, although courses in OR had been offered since 1955.

The Department of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research, created in 1965, became the School of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research in 1967, with Robert Bechhofer serving as director for the ensuing decade.  The school’s acronym became a more pronounceable “ORIE” in 1975, becoming the School of Operations Research and Industrial Engineering. This change reflected the ascendancy of the more mathematical aspects of the discipline.

During the early 1950’s, as head of the  Department of Industrial Engineering and Administration, Schultz took several important steps that accelerated Cornell’s commitment and contributions to OR. He added two new faculty members, Robert Bechhofer and Lionel Weiss, who were trained as mathematical statisticians. They played key roles in making applications of statistics part of the core of OR and in leading the school beyond traditional industrial engineering to a broader discipline, more sophisticated mathematically, and better suited to the rapidly evolving needs of industry. With others, they also established a more scholarly direction to the Department, regularly publishing journal articles (by contrast, Schultz had published only one journal article, coauthored with his Ph.D. student, Richard W. Conway).     

By the end of the 1950’s, Schultz had also identified two young Cornell Ph.D.’s, Conway, and Conway’s Ph.D. student William Maxwell, who would lead a transformation to the new era uniting computing with a mathematically rigorous approach to solving production planning problems . As a PhD student, Conway had learned of early work on simulation at UCLA by Jim Jackson and, during a summer at General Electric, by later Nobel Economics laureate Harry Markowitz. Later, as a professor, Conway spent a sabbatical at Rand, where Markowitz had developed the SimScript simulation language. Conway saw that production planning problems that could not be solved analytically were susceptible to being dealt with computationally using simulation methods.  He and later Maxwell did experiments on applying simulation to production planning problems, and described the major lessons they had learned about the process of simulation itself in seminal publications.  Simulation became a significant component of the OR&IE curriculum after Maxwell, in 1961, developed and taught what may have been the first academic course in the subject.  

In the 1980’s Conway and Maxwell developed the XCELL Factory Modeling System, a commercial simulation program that made sound scheduling approaches accessible to factory operations managers through the use of computer graphics.  They also developed computer languages and compilers, notably PL/C, which facilitated use of computing in teaching and research by automatically eliminating common programming errors that in the days of batch-based computing had resulted in the need to correct and resubmit punched card decks over several days.    

The 1967 book, Theory of Scheduling, by Conway, Maxwell and Louis Miller is regarded to be a landmark in the timeline of Operations Research (and was so named by INFORMS).  It placed on a formal foundation the study of the entire area of production scheduling.  Conway and Maxwell both taught at Cornell for almost forty years. Conway was one of the founding members of the Computer Science Department; Maxwell spent his entire academic career in OR, and was the first Andrew Schultz, Jr. Professor of Industrial Engineering. Their roles in the development of OR over several decades at Cornell constitute a metaphor for the evolution of the field of OR in general, and the Cornell program in particular.

When they first joined the faculty, Conway and Maxwell must have appeared to many of the incumbent IE faculty to be wild-eyed young theoreticians. They were developing notation, nomenclature and theory for a broad, abstract class of optimization problems; they certainly were not at the center of 1950’s IE. Long before they retired from the faculty, Conway and Maxwell were viewed, correctly, as among the faculty most focused on applications, which had always driven their theoretical work, rather than theory. They achieved tremendous success in moving the field – what had been theoretical, relative to the prevailing norms early in their careers, became later, in part due to their efforts, part of the practitioner’s tool kit.

Moving forward on diverse related fronts

Supply chain management represents a natural continuation of Conway and Maxwell’s production planning activities, but it extends beyond the manufacturing and distribution activities of a single organization to the flow of products, information, and money through the entire supply chain, including corporate partners. John A. (Jack) Muckstadt led the development of supply chain management research and teaching in ORIE.   As heir to the tradition that began with Kimball, Bangs, Schultz, Conway and Maxwell, Muckstadt, with Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Professors K. K. Wang and Albert George, established the Cornell Manufacturing Engineering and Productivity Program, and was its first director.

Throughout the 1960’s the curriculum and research activities in OR continued to expand with the hiring of faculty in applied probability, game theory, and optimization. N.U. (Uma) Prabhu joined the faculty in 1965.  His 1965 book, Queues and Inventories, a Study of Their Basic Stochastic Processes, also recognized by INFORMS as a major contribution to the development of OR, and his journal publications brought unity to the treatment of a variety of important applications and solidified the role of probabilistic models and methods in OR.  Louis Billera and then William Lucas joined the faculty in the late 1960’s, and made Cornell one of three world centers, along with Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Leningrad State University, for graduate study in game theory, the mathematical analysis of conflict and cooperation. Many influential game theorists of the next generation studied at Cornell in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

By the 1970's, OR at Cornell had hired several faculty in optimization, including Michael Todd and George Nemhauser, who served as Director from 1977 to 1983.  In 1971, D.R. Fulkerson left the RAND Corporation to join the Cornell faculty. Fulkerson was already a legendary figure for his research in network flows and in large-scale optimization. Fulkerson and L.R. Ford, Jr., had developed the theory of network flows, which had had an enormous impact on the practice of OR. He had also co-authored work that introduced several of the cornerstones of large-scale optimization: cutting planes and branch-and-bound (in work on the traveling salesman problem with George Dantzig and Selmer Johnson); column generation (with Ford); and the primal-dual method (with Dantzig and Ford).  These contributions were considered among the most important in the field at that time. Over the decades that have passed since, they have become even more important in the practical application of large-scale optimization in industry. Fulkerson’s death in 1976 was a painful blow for Cornell and for the OR community worldwide. However, in his five years at Cornell he set a standard for excellence that continues to serve well. Since Ray Fulkerson’s arrival in 1971, OR&IE has had a leadership role in optimization.

The Cornell OR community has encompassed researchers and practitioners in a variety of academic disciplines.  Jack Kiefer and Jacob Wolfowitz, who with Aryeh Dvoretsky wrote seminal 1952 theoretical papers on inventory theory and taught statistics from a decision-theoretic point of view, were in Mathematics.  They “were central figures in a whirl of mathematical statistics activity at Cornell,” according to an extensive history of statistics at Cornell by Booth and Wells (2013), statistical  activity that  included ORIE professors Bechhofer, Weiss, Prabhu, Donald Iglehart and Howard Taylor.  Civil and Environmental Engineering  faculty allied with ORIE included Walter Lynn (who wrote his PhD thesis under the guidance of Abraham Charnes) and Christine Shoemaker (a student of Richard Bellman), both involved with applications of Operations Research to environmental issues, as well as Charles ReVelle and Edelman Laureate Mark Turnquist.  

Graduate study at Cornell is organized into fields, each composed of faculty from a number of departments who share an intellectual interest. The Field of OR has included faculty not only in ORIE, CEE and Mathematics, but in Electrical and Computer Engineering, Statistical Science, Computer Science, Information Science, Chemical and Biological Engineering, and the Graduate School of Management.   

Financial engineering, a vigorous new area for application of OR methods, is a specialty of applied probabilists who have played  a major role in Ithaca and at OR&IE’s Cornell Financial Engineering Manhattan (CFEM) office, which is an outpost to the financial community.  The Master of Engineering financial engineering concentration began in Ithaca as a collaboration between the OR&IE and the Johnson Graduate School of Management (JGSM), spearheaded by applied probabilist David Heath of OR&IE and Robert Jarrow of JGSM.  According to Muckstadt, who served as director from 1987 to 1996, it was the first of its kind in a US engineering or mathematics department, and has had a significant impact on ORIE and on the field of operations research.

In 2006, the School’s name became Operations Research and Information Engineering, preserving the OR&IE (or ORIE) acronym.  The change was the result of an information revolution that has dramatically broadened the impact of OR. Information engineering, the process of transforming data into useful information, has always played a key role in OR, but the rapidly increasing scope and scale of available data challenges us to better understand this process. The role of information is further highlighted by the transformation of the US economy from one based primarily on manufacturing to one oriented towards service industries, where information itself is often a key commodity. The names of courses recently introduced in OR&IE – "Revenue Management", "Statistical Data Mining",  “Learning With Big Messy Data”, “Bayesian Machine Learning”,  "Service System Modeling and Design", “The Design of Online Marketplaces”,  and "Delivering OR Solutions with Information Technology" – reveal how the School's mission is expanding in this direction.

During more than half a century, ORIE graduates with BS, M.Eng., MS and PhD degrees have attained positions of worldwide prominence in industry, academia, government, and the military.     

Geographic Expansion

With the departure from Cornell in 2006 of Computer Science Professor Thomas Coleman as founder and Director of the Cornell Theory Center (CTC), the Manhattan CTC offices became available to OR&IE.  The offices, a block from the New York Stock Exchange, had been the basis for activities in computational finance, and subsequently became a major facility for the financial engineering M.Eng. program as Cornell Financial Engineering Manhattan (CFEM).  M.Eng. students move to Manhattan after two semesters in Ithaca, do summer internships and carry out projects for financial services firms during a third semester.  Some continue at CFEM with a fourth semester devoted to Financial Data Science.    

In 2011, Cornell won a worldwide competition among leading universities to expand applied sciences in New York City by establishing a new campus, Cornell Tech, on land donated by the city on Roosevelt Island in Manhattan. OR&IE was one of four technical departments that were part of the original plan, and Professor David Shmoys led one of the planning groups formulating the winning design for the campus. Cornell Tech’s mission is to focus on graduate education, and is committed to a different academic approach, one that emphasizes solving applied problems and starting new businesses, using a layered set of student projects that are integrated across the various engineering and business units at Cornell Tech.   OR&IE joined other Ithaca units in undertaking Masters programs even before construction of the new campus, using facilities in the Chelsea district of Manhattan.  

The inaugural class in OR&IE’s new Master of Engineering program at Cornell Tech matriculated in the fall of 2016, becoming the first engineering program launched at Cornell Tech.  In 2017 ORIE’s Cornell Tech Master of Engineering program, as well as CFEM, moved to the Roosevelt Island campus, opening a new era in a long and distinguished history. 

  -Mark Eisner (directly incorporating substantial material from essays with the same title by OR&IE Professor Robert Bland (unpublished) and by Altschuler, Cain and Kline (2009)  

Links and References

Altschuler G. C., Cain B., & Kline R. R., eds. (2009) ORIE: Scientific Management for the Information Age. Cornell Engineering: A Tradition of Leadership and Innovation, 219-233. (link)

Berth, D. F. and Groninger V (1970) Kaleidoscope: Cornell’s OR Faculty.  Engineering:Cornell Quarterly, vol 4 no 1, Winter 1970, 11-21.  College of Engineering, Ithaca NY (link)

Booth J. G. and Wells M. T.. (2013) Biometrics and statistical science at Cornell. In Agrest A. & Meng X., eds.  Strength in Numbers: The Rising of Academic Statistics Departments in the U.S., 39-50. Springer: New York. (link)  

Conway R. W. (2014) Interview by Robert G. Sargent, June 11. Cornell University: Ithaca, NY. NCSU Computer Simulation Archive. Raleigh, North Carolina. (video)

Conway R.W. and Maxwell W.L. (2014) Interview by Robert G. Sargent, June 11. Cornell University: Ithaca New York. NCSU Computer Simulation Archive. Raleigh, North Carolina. (video)

Schultz,Jr., A. (1970) The Quiet Revolution; From “Scientific Management” to “Operations Research”, Engineering:Cornell Quarterly, vol 4 no 1, Winter 1970, pages 2-10.  College of Engineering, Ithaca NY (link)

Associated Historic Individuals

Baker, Kenneth R.
Blumstein, Alfred
Conway, Richard W.
Elmaghraby, Salah E.
Feller, William
Fulkerson, D. Ray
Geoffrion, Arthur M.
Gomory, Ralph E.
Gross, Donald
Hausman, Warren H.
Iglehart, Donald L.
Liebman, Judith
Maxwell, William
Montroll, Elliott W.
Muckstadt, John A.
Nemhauser, George
Pollock, Stephen M.
Puterman, Martin
ReVelle, Charles S.
Schrage, Linus
Shoemaker, Christine A.
Stidham Jr., Shaler
Todd, Michael J.
Walker, Warren E.
Whitt, Ward