Story of IFORS and its international conference

First held 60 years ago, the triennial event – and the Federation – continue to grow to meet their respective missions.

Leading participants at the first International Conference in Operational Research, Oxford, 1957. Among those sitting in the front row (from the far right to the center) are: E.L. Arnoff, David Hertz, Pat Rivett, George Dantzig, Philip Morse, Thornton Page and Sir Charles Goodeve.

Leading participants at the first International Conference in Operational Research, Oxford, 1957. Among those sitting in the front row (from the far right to the center) are: E.L. Arnoff, David Hertz, Pat Rivett, George Dantzig, Philip Morse, Thornton Page and Sir Charles Goodeve. Source: IFORS

By Graham K. Rand

In July, the 21st triennial conference of the International Federation of Operational Research Societies (IFORS) will be held in Quebec. The first international conference was held 60 years ago in Oxford, England. The double celebration of significant anniversaries provides a good opportunity to reflect on what led to the first conference and to the creation of IFORS. As will be seen, and is only to be expected, the two societies that merged to create INFORMS – the Operations Research Society of America (ORSA) and the Institute of Management Sciences (TIMS) – were key players in the founding of both IFORS and the international conference.

In his presidential address, delivered at the 3rd Annual Meeting of TIMS at Los Angeles in October 1956, Gifford H. Symonds informed his members that “TIMS Council has agreed to co-sponsor … with the Operations Research Society of America and the Operational Research Society of England an international conference on operational research and management science in England in 1957” [7]. Hopefully, OR Society members in Scotland, Wales and Ireland didn’t see this announcement; it is a U.K. society.

The idea for the conference arose when members of TIMS and ORSA prepared a joint letter to the presidents of both societies proposing an international meeting. TIMS had an embryo French section, and hoped that the meeting would be held in Paris, but, by the time its council decided to co-sponsor the international meeting, the British had already offered to host the conference in Oxford. Many of the arrangements had been set, and Paris was ruled out.

In January 1955, the vice-president of ORSA, Russ Ackoff, from the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, first proposed the idea to Pat Rivett, secretary of the OR Society, who received it enthusiastically. Conference committees were formed in early 1956, led by Sir Charles Goodeve and Pat Rivett in the U.K. and Thornton Page and David Hertz in the U.S., and by September 1956, the plans were well laid. At the time, Sir Charles was working for the British Iron and Steel Association. Rivett was also working in one of the U.K. nationalized industries – the National Coal Board. On the U.S. side, Page was from the Operations Research Office at Johns Hopkins University, and Hertz worked for Arthur Andersen and Company.

In 1957, Page reported that “there were several major differences in concept to be ironed out: the OR Society wanted to maintain a scholarly atmosphere, ORSA emphasised the international aspects, and TIMS the organisational aspects of OR” [6]. The early decisions included limitation of the size of the conference to 250 delegates, pre-publication of the selected papers and solicitation of delegates from 30 countries. The selection of papers proved to be a major task; many potential participants were turned down. Most significantly, in the light of subsequent history, it was agreed that an evening meeting should be held when selected delegates could discuss the continuation of the international conferences.

Senior delegates met at “The Bear” pub to discuss plans for another conference.

Senior delegates met at “The Bear” pub to discuss plans for another conference. Credit: Graham Rand

Oxford 1957

It was a truly international meeting with delegates from the U.S., U.K., France, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey. Female delegates (there were not many) and couples were housed in hotels and guest houses, while the single males discovered, in Balliol and Magdalen colleges, that “Oxford undergraduates get along without plumbing on every floor and with the nearest bath sometimes 100 yards away along an outside path” [6]. Everyone ate together, in medieval halls, “seated on long oaken benches, and served by the famous Oxford scouts” [6].

Page reports that speakers, presumably in the discussion sessions, were allowed seven minutes each, and the timing was controlled by a set of green and red lights. The speaker was not to start another sentence after the red light came on. Hugh Miser recalled that all concerned obeyed this discipline, though at a meeting some years later he heard Tjalling Koopmans complain that he had been cut off by the red light, and would now finish his remarks.

Hertz reported to TIMS that “we were housed and fed (although as one of those who stayed at Balliol, I’m not sure you can call it ‘fed’ – with no apologies to the hosts, since apparently Balliol College is very proud of its very bad food) all for $56.00, everything included. Very smoothly run: entertainment at the banquet, nightly informal sessions after we were locked in the colleges by the head porter, being awakened rather brusquely every morning by the under porter – this should convey some of the flavor” [5].

The Proceedings of the conference, which includes a group photograph of the participants, were published the same year [4]. In addition to the formal papers, the opening session, discussions on the papers, panel discussions, reports on O.R. developments in the countries represented, and the summing-up are also included. The Proceedings were distributed widely, including to all the membership of ORSA. Some of the leading participants are shown in the front row of the group photograph (see photo on p. 24). It is interesting to note that C. West Churchman, who summed up the conference in a closing session, and Russ Ackoff, who by then had moved up to president of ORSA, are several rows back in the photograph.

The following week, the prestigious British journal, The Economist, reported on the conference [1]. In a perceptive comment the reporter noted that it is not easy to be sure what O.R. is “since this co-operative application of the scientific method to the workings of business and other organisations is apt to push its elastic frontiers out round wherever it happens to stray, but many of the activities upon which its gaze happens to light benefit from its scrutiny.” The reporter noted a difference between British and American O.R.: “The experts from the United States were concerned more with the elaboration of its techniques, and with the study of large working systems in all their ramifications, than with the practical case studies and applications British speakers described.”

On the last day of the conference, the participants dispersed in seven groups to meet O.R. workers at their place of work. Tours away from the conference have continued to be an important feature of IFORS conferences, but are now touristic rather than professional. However, the opportunity for social interaction continues to be the main aim of these activities.

In his report to TIMS members, Hertz noted, “The promotion of science is not alone in the doing; it is also in the critical awareness of what others are doing and what, if you please, the world is like. I’m afraid that lack of awareness of this is a singular trait of U.S. management. In that connection, a paper such as delivered by Manning of Great Britain at the international conference on ‘Tolerances in Fitting Shoes,’ or by Kawata of Japan on ‘Standing Time of a Freight Car in a Marshalling Yard,’ may be compellingly suggestive as to the transfer of methodology through the filtering action of environmental demand, perception and the other factors mentioned. These papers can be interestingly contrasted with one of the U.S. contributions – George Feeney’s ‘Empty Box Car Distribution Problem’” [5].

Senior delegates met at “The Bear” pub to discuss plans for another conference.

Oxford and its “dreaming spirals” played host to the first IFORS International Conference 60 years ago. Credit: Stephen Rand

Planning the Next Step

On the evening of Sept. 5, more than two dozen senior delegates met at a “pub,” The Bear, in Woodstock, a village outside Oxford close to Blenheim Palace, to discuss plans for another conference. In addition to the U.K., the U.S. and France, the countries represented were Australia, Canada, India, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. The attendees agreed that another conference should be held in spring 1960. Although there was a feeling that it should be held in the U.S. or Canada, the expense would prevent many Europeans from attending. Instead, the delegates decided to keep the conference in Europe, but not in a large city. Germain Kreweras’ suggestion of Aix-en-Provence in France was later approved, though the date turned out to be September 1960.

There was a great deal of discussion about the nature and size of the conference. Philip Morse, from MIT, the first president of ORSA (1952-53), wanted it limited to 100 delegates; others thought that a thousand delegates would be more desirable. In the end, they agreed to restrict attendance to between 200 and 500 delegates, and that a limitation on the size of an individual country’s delegation might be desirable.

In the discussion about a permanent federation, several potential objectives of such an organization were suggested. They included co-ordinating O.R. effort on international problems, establishing an abstracting and translating service in O.R., ensuring the continuity and consistent high quality of international conferences and obtaining travel funds and publication funds, possibly from UNESCO, UN or OEEC. It was agreed that Sir Charles Goodeve and his committee would continue to act as a secretariat until a federation was established, and that they should prepare a draft charter. Although no formal instructions were given, it was understood that the Federation would consist of member societies, not individuals, that the secretariat (committee) should be elected on a rotating basis, that votes would be on some proportional basis, that finance would be raised by subscription, that new member societies would be elected on evidence of qualification, and that the charter could be amended by a majority vote. Goodeve and those members of his committee who were present accepted these responsibilities, on the understanding that others may be co-opted, and so the ground was laid for the birth of IFORS some 15 months later.

The Birth of IFORS

IFORS came into existence on Jan. 1, 1959. The time since the Oxford meeting had been spent in preparing the statutes and creating the working arrangements for the Federation. There were initially three member societies: ORSA, the OR Society and SOFRO, the French society. The statutes gave control of the Federation to a Board of Representatives of one member per society; the initial members were John Lathrop (ORSA), Germain Kreweras (SOFRO) and Pat Rivett (OR Society). Lathrop, from Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, had not attended the first conference, but had followed Russ Ackoff as ORSA president in 1958-59 after a lengthy period of service as ORSA’s first secretary/treasurer from 1952-55.

To discharge the affairs of the Federation, the statutes provided for a Secretariat consisting of a secretary (an executive officer) and treasurer, to be nominated by a designated “Foster” Society. The first such society was the OR Society, and Goodeve was nominated as secretary (essentially the first president) and Donald Hicks (National Coal Board) was nominated as treasurer. The Board of Representatives accepted these nominations.

The statutes [2] set out the purpose of the new Federation: “the development of operational research as a unified science and its advancement in all nations of the world.” Several ways of accomplishing this included the following:

  1. Sponsoring of international conferences and meetings.
  2. Providing other means for the exchange of information on operational research between nations.
  3. Encouraging the establishment of national operational research societies.
  4. Maintaining standards of competence in operational research.
  5. Encouraging the teaching of operational research.
  6. Promoting the development of specific parts of operational research, for example, to ensure a balance within that science or to open new fields.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the statutes is the provision that in all formal votes taken by the board, the voting strength of each member society is in proportion to the square root of the qualified membership (defined in the bylaws as “broadly those who have a university degree or its equivalent and have worked in the field of operational research for at least two years”) of that society. This is clearly meant to give greater weight to larger societies, but not to overwhelm the smaller societies. The effect now is that the largest society (INFORMS with more than 8,000 qualified members) has a voting strength of just over 90, compared to the smallest society (Tunisia with 21 members), whose voting strength is less than five.

IFORS’ first AGM

About 350 delegates were present at the first conference following the founding of IFORS, in Aix-en-Provence in September 1960. This conference was designated the 2nd IFORS conference, hence the celebration of the 21st this year. During the conference, the first general meeting of IFORS was held, attended by the official delegates of the 10 member societies (the Netherlands, Australia, Sweden, Belgium, Canada, India and Norway had by now joined IFORS). Sir Charles Goodeve reported [3] that the Oxford Conference had yielded a surplus of nearly £1000 ($1,200), that the 10 member societies had a combined membership of more than 4,000, of whom 1,700 were “qualified,” and that an application for membership had been received from Japan. Four proposals were discussed and later approved by ballot: (i) that ORSA be designated the next foster society, (ii) that the next conference be held in Oslo in 1963, with Norway the host society, (iii) that IFORS sponsor a new abstracting journal, and (iv) that the annual membership levy would be 5 shillings ($0.30) per qualified member.

What Happened?

In the years since 1955, IFORS had been conceived, born and grown. Many of the societies who were to play key roles in the development of IFORS were already members of the Federation, and were drawn from three of the four regional groups that were created later. Today, IFORS consists of more than 50 member societies, representing some 30,000 individuals. Representatives from a good proportion of the member societies will gather in Quebec in July. And so the IFORS story continues.

Graham Rand recently retired from Lancaster University, U.K. He was IFORS vice president (1998-2000) and is currently chair of IFORS’ publications committee. He was chair of the organizing committee of the 12th IFORS conference held in Athens in 1990.


  1. Anon., 1957, “Operational Research,” The Economist, Sept. 7, pp. 784 and 787.
  2. Anon, 1959, “The International Federation of Operational Research Societies,” Operations Research, Vol. 7, B36-B41.
  3. Anon, 1961, “The International Federation of Operational Research Societies,” Operations Research, Vol. 9, B87-B88.
  4. Davies, M., Eddison, R.T., Page, T., 1957, Proceedings of the first international conference on Operational Research (Oxford 1957). English Universities Press, London.
  5. Hertz, D.B., 1958, “The International Conference on Operations Research: A Report,” Management Science, Vol. 4, 344-347.
  6. Page, T., 1957, “First International Conference on Operations Research,” Operations Research, Vol. 5, 863-871.
  7. Symonds, G.H., 1957, “The Institute of Management Sciences: Progress Report,” Management Science, Vol. 3, 117-130.