The Origins of OR

The term "operational research" was originally used in Britain during World War II to connote scientific research done to integrate new radar technologies into Royal Air Force tactics.  By 1941 the term had expanded to encompass research done to assist military officers in developing tactics and planning combat operations, whether or not technology played a critical role in the analysis.  Much of this work simply involved gathering empirical data and conducting basic statistical analyses.  While some wartime work, such as the development of search theory, was more mathematically advanced, OR would only become focused on sophisticated mathematical methods when it emerged as a civilian profession in the postwar era.

1. General History on World War II-era OR

Published Resources
  • Florence N. Trefethen, “A History of Operations Research,” in Joseph F. McCloskey and Florence N. Trefethen (eds.), Operations Research for Management (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1954), pp. 3-35.
  • M. Fortun and S. S. Schweber, “Scientists and the Legacy of World War II: The Case of Operations Research,” Social Studies of Science 23 (1993): 595-642. (link)
  • William Thomas, “The Heuristics of War: Scientific Method and the Founders of Operations Research,” British Journal for the History of Science 40 (2007): 251-274. (link)
  • William Thomas, Rational Action: The Sciences of Policy in Britain and America, 1940–1960 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2015).

2. World War II-era Operational Research in Britain

Published Resources
  • J. G. Crowther and R. Whiddington, Science at War (London: HMSO, 1947).
  • Joseph F. McCloskey, “British Operational Research in World War II,” Operations Research 35 (1987): 453-470. (link)
  • F. L. Sawyer, A. Charlesby, T. E. Easterfield, and E. E. Treadwell, "Reminiscences of Operational Research in World War II by Some of its Practitioners," Journal of the Operational Research Society 40 (1989): 115-139. (link)
  • Erik P. Rau, “Technological Systems, Expertise, and Policy Making: The British Origins of Operational Research,” in Michael Thad Allen and Gabrielle Hecht, eds., Technologies of Power: Essays in Honor of Thomas Parke Hughes and Agatha Chipley Hughes (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2001).
  • Maurice W. Kirby, Operational Research in War and Peace: The British Experience from the 1930s to 1970 (London: Imperial College Press, 2003).

3. Operational Research in the Royal Air Force

Published Resources
  • Air Ministry, The Origins and Development of Operational Research in the Royal Air Force (London: HMSO, 1963).

4. Operational Research and the Implementation of Radar

Published Resources
  • A. P. Rowe, One Story of Radar (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1948).
  • Robert Watson-Watt, Three Steps to Victory (London: Odhams, 1957).
  • Ronald W. Clark, The Rise of the Boffins (London: Phoenix House, 1962).
  • Ronald W. Clark, Tizard (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1965).
  • E. C. Williams, “The Origin of the Term “Operational Research” and the Early Development of Military Work” Operational Research 19 (1968): 111-113. (link)
  • H. Larnder, “The Early History of Organized Operational Research,” June 10, 1964. (link to pdf)
  • Harold Larnder, “The Origin of Operational Research,” Operations Research 32 (1984): 465-475. (link)
  • Joseph F. McCloskey, “The Beginnings of Operations Research, 1934-1941,” Operations Research 35 (1987): 143-152. (link)
  • R. Hanbury Brown, Boffin: A Personal Story of the Early Days of Radar, Radio Astronomy and Quantum Optics (New York: Taylor & Francis, 1991).
  • M. W. Kirby and R Capey, “The Air Defence of Great Britain, 1920-1940: An Operational Research Perspective,” Journal of the Operational Research Society 48 (1997): 555-568. (link)
  • David Zimmerman, Britain’s Shield: Radar and the Defeat of the Luftwaffe (Stroud: Sutton, 2001).

5. Patrick Blackett

Although the experimental physicist Patrick Blackett was tangentially connected to radar-oriented work via his position on Henry Tizard’s Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Defence, his work in OR began in earnest with his leadership of a “research group” in the British Army’s Anti-Aircraft Command. He subsequently formed groups at R.A.F. Coastal Command and the Admiralty, and, during the war, was regarded as an authority on the subject of OR. After the war, his interest in the subject waned, though he continued to speak and write about his wartime work.

Published Resources
  • P. M. S. Blackett, Studies of War, Nuclear and Conventional (New York: Hill and Wang, 1962).

Blackett’s book is a collection of essays he wrote, which includes the following pieces:

  • “Operational Research” (1948), which reproduces his wartime memoranda “Scientists at the Operational Level” (1941) and “Notes on the Methodology of Operational Research” (1943).
  • “The Scope of Operational Research” (1950), originally appearing as “Operational Research” in the first issue of Operational Research Quarterly, now the Journal of the Operational Research Society. (link)
  • “Recollections of Problems Studied, 1940-1945” (1953).

Other biographical treatments of Blackett include:

  • C. H. Waddington, Charles Goodeve, and Rolfe Tomlinson, “Appreciation: Lord Blackett,” Journal of the Operational Research Society 25 (1974): i-viii. (link)
  • Bernard Lovell, “Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett, Baron Blackett, of Chelsea,” Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 21 (1975): 1-115. (link)
  • Peter Hore, ed., Patrick Blackett: Sailor, Scientist, Socialist (Portland, Ore.: Frank Cass, 2000).
  • Mary Jo Nye, Blackett: Physics, War and Politics in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004).
  • Stephen Budiansky, Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).
Archival Resources
  • The Patrick Blackett papers are held by the Royal Society Library in London, UK.

6. The Anti-Aircraft Command Research Group

Published Resources
  • P. M. S. Blackett, "Recollections of Problems Studied, 1940-1945" (1953), reprinted in P. M. S. Blackett, Studies of War, Nuclear and Conventional (New York: Hill and Wang, 1962).
  • Bernard Lovell, “Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett, Baron Blackett, of Chelsea,” Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 21 (1975): 1-115. (link)
Archival Resources
  • L. E. Bayliss, “Army Operational Research Memorandum, No. 615: The Origins of Operational Research in the Army,” October 11, 1945. National Archives of the UK: Public Record Office WO 291/887.

7. Operational Research at R.A.F. Fighter Command

Published Resources
  • Aside from Air Ministry, The Origins and Development of Operational Research in the Royal Air Force (London: HMSO, 1963), no history exists of R.A.F. Fighter Command.
Archival Resources
  • Many wartime materials can be found in the National Archives of the UK at Kew, London. A list of R.A.F. Fighter Command reports can be found in AIR 16/1042. Reports are gathered in AIR 16/1043 and AIR 16/1045.

8. Operational Research at R.A.F. Coastal Command

Published Resources
  • P. M. S. Blackett, "Recollections of Problems Studied, 1940-1945" (1953), reprinted in P. M. S. Blackett, Studies of War, Nuclear and Conventional (New York: Hill and Wang, 1962).
  • C. H. Waddington, OR in World War 2: Operational Research against the U-Boat (London: Elek Science, 1973)
  • Jonathan Rosenhead, “Operational Research at the Crossroads: Cecil Gordon and the Development of Post-War OR” Journal of the Operational Research Society 40 (1989): 3-28. (link)
  • E. C. Baughan, “Reminiscences of Operational Research in World War II by Some of Its Practitioners, II,” Journal of the Operational Research Society 43 (1992): 573-577. (link)
  • Stephen Budiansky, Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).
Archival Resources
  • Many Coastal Command reports are gathered at the National Archives of the UK in AVIA 7/1004, AVIA 7/1005, AIR 15/127, AIR 15/128, AIR 15/731, AIR 15/732, AIR 15/733, and AIR 15/734.

9. Operational Research at R.A.F. Bomber Command

Published Resources
  • Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (New York: Harper & Row, 1979).
  • M. W. Kirby and R. Capey, “The Area Bombing of Germany in World War II: An Operational Research Perspective,” Journal of the Operational Research Society 48 (1997): 661-667. (link)
  • Freeman Dyson, “A Failure of Intelligence: Operational Research in the RAF Bomber Command,” Technology Review 109, no. 6 (2006): 62-71. (link)
  • Randall Wakelam, The Science of Bombing: Operational Research in RAF Bomber Command (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009).

10. Operational Research in the Admiralty

Published Resources

OR in the Admiralty is closely associated with Patrick Blackett; see the literature in section 5. The following two works concentrate on the specific question of convoy size.

  • N. Falconer, “On the Size of Convoys: An Example of the Methodology of Leading Wartime OR Scientists,” Journal of the Operational Research Society 27 (1976): 315-327. (link)
  • Malcolm Llewellyn-Jones, “A Clash of Cultures: The Case for Large Convoys,” in Peter Hore, ed., Patrick Blackett: Sailor, Scientist, Socialist (Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2000), pp. 138-158.

11. Operational Research in the British Army

Published Resources
  • George Lindsey, “Some Personal Recollections of Army Operational Research on Radar in World War II,” Canadian Military History 4 (1995): 69-74. (link to pdf)
  • Brian Austin, Schonland: Scientist and Soldier (Philadelphia: Institute of Physics, 2001).
Archival Resources

National Archives of the UK:

  • WO 291/1296: P. A. P. Moran, “Summary of Work at A.O.R.G. (March, 1945).”
  • WO 291/1301: “Operational Research in the British Army, 1939-1945,” October 1947.
  • WO 291/1437: A. W. Ross, Army Operational Research Group, Memorandum No. F.10, “An Introduction to the Army Operational Research Group,” August 1955.
  • WO 291/887: L. E. Bayliss, “Army Operational Research Memorandum, No. 615: The Origins of Operational Research in the Army,” October 11, 1945.
  • WO 291/1288: “AORG Radar Section 1941-45.”
  • WO 291/304: “The History of O.R.S. 1(b): A Summary of the Analysis Made of the Operational Performance of the H.A.A. Defences, 1940-1946,” Operational Research Group (Weapons & Equipment), Report 328.
  • WO 291/1294: David Lack, “Notes on the Work of AORS2 of Army Operational Research Group, 1941-5,” July 1945.
  • WO 291/1295: G. C. Varley, “Notes on the Work of O.R.S.2 of Army Operational Research Group 1941-44,” December 1944.
  • WO 291/1292: O.R.S.2., “The History of the Investigation of Siting Errors in CD/CHL Installations,” December 1944.
  • WO 291/1289: “Paper by Major Gill on Work in Signals and Jamming,” November 9, 1944.
  • WO 291/1287: “The History of A.O.R.S. 5.”
  • WO 291/1291: Capt. F. C. Maunsell, “A.O.R.S.6 – History of Investigations,” November 15, 1944.
  • WO 291/1290: “O.R.S. 8(a),” December 7, 1944.
  • WO 205/1164: “Operational Research in North West Europe: The Work of No. 2 Operational Research Section with 21 Army Group, June 1944 – July 1945.”
  • WO 291/1199: W. H. Dowdeswell, Army Operational Research Group, Memorandum No. B5, “Operational Reports from SEAC, 1944-47.”

12. Operations Research in the United States

Published Resources
  • Lincoln R. Thiesmeyer and John E. Burchard, Combat Scientists (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1947).
  • Joseph F. McCloskey, “U.S. Operations Research in World War II,” Operations Research 35 (1987): 910-925. (link)
  • Erik P. Rau, “The Adoption of Operations Research in the United States during World War II,” in Agatha C. Hughes and Thomas P. Hughes, eds., Systems, Experts and Computers: The Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World War II and After (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2000).
Archival Resources
  • NARA RG 218, Joint New Weapons Committee, Subject File, May 1942-1945, Box 57, Memorandum No. 2, “Operations Analysis in the U.S. Army and Navy.”

13. Operations Research in the U.S. Navy

Published Resources

OR in the U.S. Navy was led by MIT physicist Philip Morse, and for a period Morse's deputy, Bell Laboratories physicist William Shockley.

  • Philip M. Morse, In at the Beginnings: A Physicist’s Life (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1977).
  • Keith R. Tidman, The Operations Evaluation Group: A History of Naval Operations Analysis (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1984).
  • Joel N. Shurkin, Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age (New York: Macmillan, 2006).

14. Operations Analysis in the U.S. Army Air Forces

Published Resources
  • United States Army Air Forces, Operations Analysis in World War II (Philadelphia: Stevenson Brothers, 1948).
  • Charles W. McArthur, Operations Analysis in the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force in World War II (Providence: American Mathematical Society, 1990).
  • Hugh J. Miser, “Craft in Operations Research,” Operations Research 40 (1992): 633-639. (link)
  • G. Baley Price, “The Oxford Experiment in H2X Radar Bombing,” Interfaces 23, no. 5 (1993): 50-55. (link)
  • Charles W. McArthur, “An Eighth Air Force Bombardier Looks Back at Operations Analysis,” Interfaces 23, no. 5 (1993): 56-61. (link)
  • Alex E. S. Green, “Finding the Japanese Fleet in March 1945,” Interfaces 23, no. 5 (1993): 62-69. (link)
  • Hugh J. Miser, “Coping with Outliers in Scoring Bombing Training Results,” Interfaces 23, no. 5 (1993): 70-76. (link)
  • Alex E. S. Green, “A Physicist with the Air Force in World War II,” Physics Today 54, no. 8 (August 2001): 40-44. (link)
  • Charles R. Shrader, History of Operations Research in the United States Army, Vol. 1: 1942-1962 (Washington, DC: United States Army, 2006).
Archival Resources

15. Operational Research in Australia

Published Resources
  • D. P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry, Vol. V, Series 4 (Civil) in Gavin Long, ed., Australia in the War of 1939-1945 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1958), chapter 28. (link to pdf)