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Electrical engineer, holder of U.S. Patent Number 2,736,880 for a "Multicoordinate Digital Storage Device", issued on February 28, 1956 (application May 11, 1951) for what was soon to be called "core memory" or "random access memory", a breakthrough for computer speed and stability. Forrester is well known for his transfer to industrial, economic, and social systems of analysis and modeling with feedback calculations he had mastered in servomechanism (or servosystem) design.


As the Twig is Bent...

Born In Climax, Nebraska, on July 14, 1918, Forrester grew up on a Nebraska cattle ranch. In his own words,
A ranch is a cross-roads of economic forces. Supply and demand, changing prices and costs, and economic pressures of agriculture become a very personal, powerful, and dominating part of life. Furthermore, in an agricultural setting, life must be very practical. It is not theoretical, it is not conceptual without purpose. One works to get results. It is full-time immersion in the real world.
And once he got off the farm with the opportunity to attend college, he signed up for engineering, not agriculture: he didn't want to herd cattle in freezing winter blizzards in Nebraska, and who could blame him for that!

Electrical Feedback Systems

After completing his B.S. in electrical engineering at the University of Nebraska in 1939, he pursued his studies of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, under the guidance of Gordon S. Brown, Forrester actively contributed to the development of valuable servomechanisms (feedback control systems) for controlling gun mounts and radar antennae; his contributions included field work, repairing devices on the aircraft carrier Lexington during the invasion of Tarawa and down through the middle between the Sunrise and Sunset chains of the Marshall Islands. He received a M.S. degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1945.

Computing Machines

As Forrester prepared to set out into the real world and start a company in feedback control systems, Gordon Brown presented him with the opportunity to manage a major R&D project. The project was to build a flight simulator, which would enhance pilot training machines with projected behaviors of unbuilt aircraft based on wind tunnel data obtained from models! This was in 1945, and computing technology was so embryonic the project was initially intended to use analog computers. The recommendation to go digital (Forrester's?) was accepted, and the Whirlwind digital computer was designed.

Forrester continued with defense systems projects until 1956 (when his patent for core memory was issued).

Non-Electrical Feedback Systems

Presented with the opportunity to pioneer teaching management in an engineering way in the new Sloan School of Management (founded in 1952), Forrester took this new challenge. Although he could draw on his fifteen years experience in high-tech research and development, and simply explain what he had mastered in project management (billion-dollar projects involving the U.S. military, Western Electric, A.T.&T., and I.B.M.), he chose to break new ground, and the most fertile he could find. Operations research was an option: he sought a more technical management than that taught at Harvard or Chicago, and O.R. was technical, new, combining mathematics and real-world problems, it had potential, and would attract many talented electrical engineers. But Forrester judged O.R. to be concerned with problems that were only useful, not mission-critical, and dismissed it, for he aimed for greater added value: he chose to develop the field of system dynamics.

Forrester quickly noticed that the same kinds of circuit and feedback diagrams that represent communication and command between electrical components could be drawn for communication and command between departments or functional units of organizations. The model could then be analysed, to see whether the inventory management policy was creating hiring-firing cycles, or even more cataclysmic behavior. This modeling led to his publication of Industrial Dynamics in 1961. A transposition of the modelling technique to the economics of the city led to Urban Dynamics in 1969. 2

World Dynamics

While conferring on urban difficulties in Como, Italy, Forrester met Aurelio Peccei, founder of the Club of Rome. Subsequent meetings with the Club of Rome spurred Forrester to recast and extend his modelling of the city to that of a nation and of the entire world. The timing was right on (Earth Day and other signs of ecological awareness were surfacing in the late 1960's), and the Club of Rome association may have contributed to the widespread awareness of the work: coverage of World Dynamics and Limits to Growth was widespread, from the Wall Street Journal to the Christian Science Monitor, and even Playboy Magazine. Generally, the upshot was that there probably were limits to growth, and the simulation was interesting, ground-breaking even, but certainly not conclusive given all the simplifications and assumptions it incorporated.

Epilogue

Jay Forrester is Germeshausen Professor Emeritus at MIT. During the 1980's, his work and publications addressed systems less grandiose and more amenable to control, as better suited the farm boy from Nebraska, for whom the practical and purposeful mattered :

1980
Information Sources for Modeling the National Economy.
1985
System Dynamics in Management Education
1987
Lessons from System Dynamics Modeling.
1988
Designing Social and Managerial Systems
1990
System Dynamics as a Foundation for Pre-College Education



Notes and References
  1. The Beginning of System Dynamics, Banquet Talk at the international meeting of the System Dynamics Society, Stuttgart, Germany July 13, l989, Jay W. Forrester
  2. An M.I.T. Professor of Operations Research, Richard Larsen, was awarded the Lanchester Prize by the Operations Research Society of America (ORSA) for his work in Urban Police Patrol Analysis in 1972, after seven years of research and experimentation. This matters for two reasons: urban problems and solutions were not a fringe topic but an well-regarded matter of general concern; and the rift between O.R. and a "systems" alternative was made increasingly evident.
  3. by Donella H. Meadows,Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III.

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