Jay W. Forrester

July 14, 1918 – November 16, 2016

Brief Biography

Born and raised on a cattle ranch in the Nebraska Sandhills, Jay Wright Forrester developed an early interest in designing electrical systems. As a senior in high school, he built a twelve volt, wind-driven electric plant that provided electricity to his family’s homestead. Forrester received a scholarship to attend agricultural college but instead followed his passion and enrolled in engineering at the University of Nebraska. He was introduced to the behavior of systems through the study of theoretical dynamics in electrical engineering.

Forrester went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after receiving a bachelors degree. He accepted a paid research assistantship with Gordon S. Brown at the Servomechanism Laboratory. During the Second World War, Brown and Forrester developed servomechisms for controlling radar antennas and gun mounts. In this experience, Forrester saw how research and theory can relate to practical uses.

After the War, Forrester was the director of the MIT Digital Computer Laboratory until 1951. He was responsible for the design and construction of Whirlwind I, one of the first high speed computers. In his computing work, Forrester invented random-access, coincident-current magnetic memory that served as the standard memory device for digital computers for many years. He headed the Digital Computer Division of MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. By 1956, however, Forrester felt as if the pioneering days in digital computers were over and moved to management studies.

MIT’s Sloan School of Management was founded upon the expectation that a management school in a technical environment would develop a more distinct culture than one in a liberal arts setting such as Harvard or Chicago. It was in this environment where Forrester launched the idea of system dynamics. Unlike traditional management research and other social sciences, system dynamics developed through intimate contact with real world application. Forrester’s early work was inspired by a series of discussions with General Electric personnel. He first published the philosophy and methodology of the subject in Industrial Dynamics (1961). Eight years later his third book, Urban Dynamics (1969), made waves as it presented a theory of urban interactions and identified reasons for the failures of past policies.

In 1970, Forrester began work with the Club of Rome, a global think tank designed as a “global catalyst for change through the identification and analysis of crucial problems facing humanity.” At the Club of Rome, Forrester developed a model capturing feedbacks among population, natural resources, pollution, agricultural and industrial production, capital investment, and quality of life. His book on the subject, World Dynamics (1971), posed important questions about the relationship between growth and the quality of life.

As systems dynamics began to solidify in the late 1970s, Forrester was on the forefront of organizing the field. He served as first president of the System Dynamics Society in 1983 and focused on enhancing the education of the subject. He retired in from MIT 1989 but has since received a number of accolades for his life’s work. That year, President George H. W. Bush awarded him the National Medal of Technology. In 2006, Forrester was elected into the International Federation of Operational Research Societies’ Operational Research Hall of Fame. 

Other Biographies

Profiles in Operations Research: Jay W. Forrester
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Wikipedia Entry for Jay Wright Forrester

Creative Learning Exchange. System Dynamics Documents: Jay W. Forrester Bio. Accessed April 23. 2015. (link

PBS A Science Odyssey. People and Discoveries: Jay Forrester, 1918 - . Accessed April 23, 2015. (link

Lane D. C. (2006) IFORS' Operational Research Hall of Fame: Jay Wright Forrester. International Transactions in Operational Research, 13: 483-492. (link)

Education

  • University of Nebraska, BS 1939
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MS 1945 (link

Affiliations

Academic Affiliations
Non-Academic Affiliations
  • Club of Rome

Key Interests in OR/MS

Methodologies
  • System Dynamics 
Application Areas

Oral Histories

Jay W. Forrester (1985) Oral History Interview.  Collection MC629,  Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Jay W. Forrester (1998) Interview by David Allison. March 24. Transcript. Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History: Washington, D. C.

Jay W. Forrester (2009) Interview by Toby A. Smith. January 26. Part 1. Video. The MIT 150 Infinite Oral History Project. (video)

Jay W. Forrester (2009) Interview by Toby A. Smith. March 26. Part 2. Video. The MIT 150 Infinite Oral History Project. (video)

Memoirs and Autobiographies

Memoirs

Forrester J. W. (1989) The Beginning of Systems Dynamics. July 13. Lecture. Stuttgart, Germany. System Dynamics Society. (link)

Forrester J. W. (1992) From the Ranch to System Dynamics: An Autobiography. Bedeian A. G., ed. in Management Laureates: A Collection of Autobiographical Essays, Volume 1. JAI Press: Greenwich, CT. (link

Obituaries

Church, Z. (2016) Professor Emeritus Jay Forrester, digital computing and system dynamics pioneer, dies at 98.  MIT News, November 16, 2015 (link)

Hafner, K. (2016) Jay W. Forrester Dies at 98; a Pioneer in Computer Models. New York Times, November 17, 2016 (link)

Archives

Jay W. Forrester Papers, MC 439. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Awards and Honors

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Fellow 1955

National Academy of Engineering Member 1967

IEEE Medal of Honor 1972

IEEE Computer Society Computer Pioneer Award 1982

National Medal of Technology 1989

IFORS' Operational Research Hall of Fame 2006

Professional Service

System Dynamics Society, President 1983

Selected Publications

Forrester J. W. (1958) Industrial dynamics: a major breakthrough for decision makers. Harvard Business Review, 35(4): 37-66.

Forrester J. W. (1968) Industrial dynamics – after the first decade. Management Science, 14(7): 398-415.

Forrester J. W. (1969) Urban Dynamics. Pegasus Communications: Waltham, MA.

Forrester J. W. (1971) Counterintuitive behavior of social systems. Theory and Decision, 2(2): 109-140.

Forrester J. W. (1979) World Dynamics. Productivity Press: New York.

Forrester J. W. (1980) Information sources for modeling the national economy. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 75(371): 555-566.

Forrester J. W. (1984) Gentle murder, or the adverbial Samaritan. The Journal of Philosophy, 81(4):193-197.

Forrester J. W. (1992) Policies, decisions and information sources for modeling. European Journal of Operations Research, 59(1): 42-63.

Forrester J. W. (1994) System dynamics, systems thinking, and soft OR. System Dynamics Review, 10(2-3): 245-256.

Forrester J. W. (1997) Industrial dynamics. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 48(10): 1037-1041.