Rufus Isaacs

June 11, 1914 – January 18, 1981

Brief Biography

Rufus Philip Isaacs was born in New York City. He received a bachelor of science in general engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Upon graduation, Isaacs was employed by the Carrier Corporation, a manufacturer and distributor of early air conditioning systems and commercial refrigeration. After two years, he resumed his education and enrolled at Columbia University to earn graduate degrees in mathematics. While completing his PhD, Isaacs began work at Hamilton Standard Propellers, remaining with the firm until 1945. After a short period at Notre Dame University and North American Aviation, Isaacs moved to the RAND Corporation, where he conducted his most significant research. It was here where he worked alongside such OR leaders as Lloyd Shapley and John Nash

From 1947 to 1955, Isaacs developed differential game theory at RAND. Unlike the more widely studied zero-sum and non-zero sum games that play out in one or more stages at discrete time intervals, differential games occur over a continuum of time and hence are modeled using differential equations and are closely related to optimal control theory. This work, spread across over a dozen RAND-published memorandums, came together in his 1965 book, Differential Games. The book had a significant impact on the automatic control community and was widely referenced by the days’ electrical engineers and applied mathematicians. In Differential Games, Isaacs devised the princess and monster game that dealt with pursuit-evasion. It was a well-known optimization problem that remained unsolved until the late 1970s.

Isaacs left RAND in 1955 to work with a variety of aircraft firms including Lockheed and the Hughes Company Air Division. He spent time in government and military consultant work with the Institute of Defense Analysis (1958-1962) and the Center for Naval Analyses (1962-1967).  Isaacs returned to academia in 1967 when he joined the Mathematical Sciences and Electrical Engineering Departments at the Johns Hopkins University. He remained at Hopkins until his retirement in 1977.

Isaacs' research interests went beyond game theory. As a pure mathematician, he made strides in analytic functions, number theory, and graph theory, constructing the first two infinite families of snarks - a particular kind of graph related to the famous four-color theorem and named by Martin Gardner after the mysterious subject of  a Lewis Carroll poem. His work on optimization and aerodynamics was fundamental in advancing the research and development capabilities of private aircraft firms. 

Isaacs had a decorated career and is fondly remembered by the international OR and game theory communities. In 1965, he was awarded the Frederick W. Lanchester Prize in recognition of the fresh contribution to operations research and the management sciences made by Differential Games. In 2003, the International Society of Dynamic Games established a prize to recognize individuals’ “outstanding contribution to the theory and applications of dynamic games”. The Society named the award after Isaacs, acknowledging him as the founding father of differential games. 

Other Biographies

Wikipedia Entry for Rufus Isaacs (game theorist)

Yu P. L. (1979) An appreciation of professor Rufus Isaacs. Journal of Optimization Theory and Applications, 27(1). 


Massachusetts Institute of Technology, BS 1936

Columbia University, MA 1940

Columbia University, PhD 1942 (Mathematics Genealogy)


Academic Affiliations
Non-Academic Affiliations

Key Interests in OR/MS

Application Areas


Ralph W. J. (1981) In Memoriam: Rufus P. Isaacs (1914-1981). IEEE Transactions on Automatic Control, 26(4): 809. (link)

Awards and Honors

Frederick W. Lanchester Prize 1965

Selected Publications

Isaacs R. (1951) Games of Pursuit. RAND Corporation: Santa Monica, CA. 

Isaacs R. (1953) A Problem in Programming Steel Production and its Solution by Differential Game Theory. RAND Corporation: Santa Monica, CA. 

Isaacs R. (1954) Differential Games I: Introduction. RAND Corporation: Santa Monica, CA. 

Isaacs R. (1955) The Problem of Aiming and Evasion. RAND Corporation: Santa Monica, CA.

Isaacs R. (1965) Differential Games. John Wiley & Sons: New York.

Isaacs R. (1975) Infinite families of nontrivial trivalent graphs which are not Tait colorable. American Mathematical Monthly, 82(3): 221-239.

Additional Resources

International Society of Dynamic Games. Rufus Isaacs' Award. Accessed August 17, 2018. (link)

RAND Publications List: Rufus Isaacs