Committee advances O.R. history

INFORMS History and Traditions Committee strives to collect, preserve and disseminate materials related to profession’s history.

By Arjang Assad and Mark Eisner

The INFORMS History and Traditions Committee (H&TC) was formed in 1995 and had Carl Harris as its first chair in 1997. During the two decades of its existence, the committee has had various periods of visible activity as well as lulls. In the past 18 months, however, a revitalized H&TC has been engaged in an unprecedented burst of activity. Clear goals and specific directions have been mapped out, resulting in an ambitious agenda for the committee to pursue in the coming years. In this brief article, we would like to share the recent progress made with INFORMS members, and more importantly, seek the help of the broad INFORMS community in the collection and dissemination of materials related to the history of our field.

The present committee, led by Mark Eisner, has the following members: Arjang Assad, Art Geoffrion, John Little, Irv Lustig, Sandy Stidham and Will Thomas. All of the members have demonstrated a strong interest in preserving the history of O.R.: some have served on the H&TC as chair or member, others have written on the subject, and Will is a professional historian of science whose book on the history of O.R. will be published by MIT Press shortly. The committee meets at regular intervals and has embarked on several strands of activities described below. It has also received very strong financial and moral support from the INFORMS presidents and board.

The History Website

The primary focus of the committee’s activities has been the design and construction of a website that will serve as the main structure for collecting and disseminating the history of O.R. This website will not only collect, link or reflect other existing materials, but it will also serve as a vehicle to encourage and report on new materials. The site is intended to capture memoirs and autobiographies, biographical articles, historical documents, images and oral history interviews, as well as links to these and other historic materials related to O.R.

The organization of the website is based on an initial list of biographical profiles of individuals of historic significance to O.R. The committee developed criteria for inclusion on this initial list, including honors received and birth before the close of World War II. The resulting list has 240 individuals. Sadly, nearly 90 of these, which comprise nearly all of O.R.’s first generation of contributors, have passed on. We are deeply aware that we are in a “race against time” when it comes to capturing the valuable legacy of the surviving individuals.

The website is driven by individual profiles of our luminaries. Much existing biographical information about these individuals has been collected and incorporated into the website. Currently, we are conducting a final review of the contents. This work has been facilitated by a budget allocation from INFORMS that has allowed us to hire interns to support the research needs.

The website will go public in May 2015, accessible from

Of course, we realize that the history of O.R. and management science is not solely defined by the life stories of its contributors. Other equally informative perspectives can be pursued by mining institutional histories (for instance, historical overviews of major academic programs, think tanks, government or industrial bodies, or consulting groups). Another approach would be to trace the historical development of specific methodologies and application areas (examples include linear programming, the traveling salesman problem or logistics).

The website has pages for 30 academic institutions with significant programs or activities in the formative years of O.R. We have identified another 50 organizations outside the academe where O.R. flourished in some significant form of the field. Finally, we have developed a list of methodologies and application areas. As an initial approach to populating these web pages, the site will automatically list the names of the profiled individuals with their institutional affiliations, methodologies they worked on or related applications.

Presently, though, we see a dearth of materials, particularly on institutional histories, and would like to enlist the help of the O.R. community to call our attention to documents and publications that we could use to enrich the site. Ideally, some of our colleagues will be moved to write new articles or retrospectives before the memories and files fade into oblivion.

Interviews and Oral Histories

An important goal of H&TC is to collect existing interviews that capture the sound and sight of O.R. luminaries and augment this collection with new interviews arranged and sponsored by the committee. We are actively seeking opportunities to conduct new video interviews and hope to display them with searchable transcripts. We have re-edited the eOptimization interviews that Irv Lustig conducted with George Dantzig, Alan Hoffman, Harold Kuhn and Phil Wolfe. We will publish these on the website.

With the valuable help of INFORMS videographers and editors, we are adding recent interviews with John Little, John Magee, Ron Howard and Jim Matheson. We are looking to schedule others over the course of time, particularly at INFORMS meetings. Some of these interviews have seized on opportunities provided by special anniversaries or retrospectives. For example, the interviews with Howard and Matheson were conducted at the INFORMS conference that celebrated 50 years of decision analysis through the good graces of INFORMS videographers.

Similarly, we are committed to working collaboratively with other groups that have collected oral histories. The Military Operations Research Society (MORS) has done much to prepare and publish transcripts of interviews in their focus area. We have helped to arrange interviews of Richard Conway and Bill Maxwell to be added to the INFORMS Simulation Society Archive at North Carolina State University. We also unearthed a video interview with O.R. pioneer Charles Flagle, conducted at NIH in 1997. The committee continues to seek opportunities to augment our collection of interviews with O.R. pioneers. We are also interested in new memoirs and autobiographical pieces. Later, we plan to collect and post historic images of key people, groups and sites that tell the story of O.R.

Archival Initiatives

Among our pioneers, Hugh Miser was one of the first to strongly argue for the necessity of archiving source materials on the history of O.R. Following up on Miser’s argument, Carl Harris, Ernest Koenigsberg, Mike Rothkopf and others pointed out this need from time to time. Sadly, the issue resurfaces each time the O.R. community loses one of its pioneers; what happens to the correspondence, original reports and records, memoirs or other historically significant possessions of such individuals after their demise? Unfortunately, past experience has shown that these would be lost unless some advocate for O.R. history takes action.

H&TC is acutely sensitive to the archiving issue. The website identifies existing archival collections (such as Philip Morse’s records archived at MIT), and we hope to arrange for archival collections of our luminaries at the institutions with which they have been associated. For cases where this choice of an archiving site does not materialize, we have identified the Hagley Library in Wilmington, Del., as a possible alternative. With H&TC as a key intermediary, Peter Cherry and Erik Rau have arranged for the archiving of Seth Bonder’s and Joseph McCloskey’s papers at the Hagley.

As indicated above, we welcome learning about the availability of historically valuable physical records, and can help arrange for their storage in institutional archives as an intermediary. However, neither the INFORMS office nor committee members are currently in the position to accept physical shipments.

Taking Stock of Existing Sources

In the course of its work, the committee has keenly felt the need to collect, link to or reference the various materials on O.R. history that are currently dispersed across various sources and different media. As such, we feel deeply indebted to our colleagues who have taken steps to collect historical materials on our field in the past. These sources include books, scholarly journals, autobiographical materials and memoirs, oral histories, special articles or presentations and anniversary or memorial events.

We are pursuing arrangements whereby some of these sources would be available on the H&TC website. Historical articles in INFORMS publications, particular those marking the 50th anniversaries of operations research and management science, are being made open source and will be linked from appropriate pages on the website. We have also relied heavily on the brief biographies by Paul Gray and others that were included in the Miser-Harris Presidential Gallery on the INFORMS website. In addition, chapters of “Profiles in Operations Research: Pioneers and Innovators” by Assad and Gass contain extensive biographical information on 43 O.R. pioneers. These chapters are being linked, initially on an open source basis, from the individual profile pages on the website. We hope to make these chapters and similar biographical articles available where the individual resides on the website.

While we believe to have made significant progress on capturing some of the existing materials, we surmise that, as with the proverbial iceberg, much remains submerged and out of our sight. This is where the direct assistance from the O.R. community could make a huge difference. In fact, in our view, our efforts can only succeed if all members interested in the history of O.R. provide input and assistance. Here are three straightforward ways to do this.

  • Express your interest in joining the committee.
  • Propose and champion new projects or initiatives, and then execute them with the assistance of H&TC.
  • Provide input, ideas and leads on possible new sources that would further our efforts toward enhancing the website or conducting future oral history interviews.

We look forward to hearing from you at

Arjang Assad is dean and professor, School of Management, University of Buffalo. He is a member of the INFORMS History & Traditions Committee and co-author (with the late Saul Gass) of the book, “Profiles in Operations Research: Pioneers and Innovators.”

Mark Eisner, chair of the H&TC, is communications associate, School of Operations Research and Information Engineering, Cornell University. A former associate director for the School’s Master of Engineering program, Eisner first joined the Cornell faculty in 1970 as an assistant professor before spending many years in information technology management with ExxonMobil.