On the history of OR and the emergence of the information age in World War II
Jon Agar, a distinguished professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at University College London, has published widely on the history of computing and science in Britain. On August 4, 2021, we examined the connections between policy and science in post-WWII Britain, particularly the emergence of operations rooms in response to the war-related information explosion. The interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Evgeny: During the Cold War, how prevalent were socialist beliefs among scientists, particularly operational researchers and cyberneticians?
Jon: In the 1930s, there was a powerful and well-connected group of decidedly left-wing scientists. This included operational researchers and cyberneticians. We think of the clusters around John Desmond Bernal , for example, or we think of a character like Patrick Blackett . These are convinced socialists.
If you're someone like J. B. S. Haldane , you would be a member of the Communist Party, indeed. So, that is not unusual in British scientific circles in the 1930s. I would certainly say that, after the Second World War, quite a few of them moved away – they became either more apolitical or moved even further left.
If you were going to plan society, if you were going to build a better socialist world, then the efficient application of good scientific and technical techniques was surely going to be part of that. It was cut from the same fabric, I think.
Evgeny: How did someone like J. D. Bernal think about the relationship between science and socialism?
Jon: For someone like J. D. Bernal, science and socialism were pretty much the same thing. In books like The Social Function of Science, he argued that science was so important to change the world that it absolutely had to be part of any planned socialist version of that world. He articulated in great detail how you could plan, how you could draw upon the sciences, to solve the world's problems – industrial, social, and otherwise. It's part of the same way of looking at the world. Bernal is a fascinating figure because he is so important for putting meat on the bones of this argument. We have the most detailed account of how science functions in society from Bernal; we have the clearest statement of the necessity of applying science to solve the problems of the world. Bernal is extremely important.
Evgeny: Can you describe Bernal's scientific work and how it intersected with his political beliefs, particularly during and after World War II?
Jon: Bernal is a really interesting figure because his science – the X-ray crystallography, the work he does before the Second World War – is essentially at the center of the emergence of molecular biology. And then, during the Second World War, he's taken up his own operational research. But there's always a pulling apart of the establishment’s views on Bernal – he's still useful and applied, but he comes under more and more suspicion. For example, there was a question about whether he was allowed to get close to some of the decision-making processes at crucial moments in the Second World War. And after the Second World War, he was further removed from any political influence.
SCIENTIFIC EXPERTISE IN GOVERNMENT
Jon: Harold Wilson's famous "White Heat of Technology" speech emphasized the importance of science in Britain, asserting that the nation would be forged in the "white heat of a scientific revolution." The speech, delivered during the lead-up to the election that would bring Wilson to power in the 1960s, resulted from conversations between leading scientists and the Labour Party in the 1950s. It expressed a desire to apply science in government and align with modernity.
Evgeny: To what extent did the Wilson administration implement this scientific vision, and how did it compare to previous governments' technocratic policies?
Jon: While the speech and the subsequent Labour government of the late 1960s are often remembered as technocratic, their importance has been somewhat overstated. In reality, there was more continuity than change compared to the Conservative administrations of the 1950s. The Wilson administration did create the Ministry of Technology and pursued some technological interventions, but these actions continued well-established attitudes towards science: that it was important, should be well-funded, and have a place in government, dating back to the Second World War.
The so-called “science lobby” has existed since the late 19th century, advocating for proper funding and the inclusion of scientific advice at higher levels of government. These arguments have been particularly prevalent during times of war, such as World War I, when the research council system was established. However, the science lobby has always considered this process as incomplete.
Evgeny: How did the science lobby's influence evolve between the two World Wars?
Jon: During the 1930s and the early years of World War II, the science lobby's arguments were expressed forcibly, often by civilian scientists outside the decision-making processes. Despite their limited access to information, these scientists found a receptive audience in the press, becoming an important force for lobbying and change.
Evgeny: Can you tell us more about the Tots and Quots group and its role in promoting the importance of science in government?
Jon: The Tots and Quots group, formed during the 1930s around the young animal biologist Solly Zuckerman , was a dining club that included some of the leading scientists of the time. It also attracted prominent figures from the establishment, such as politicians and individuals from the BBC. The discussions during these dinners emphasized the need for science to be at the core of government policy and that more needed to be done to ensure this. As the Second World War approached, this sense of urgency grew, partly due to the scientists' self-interest in securing more resources and partly out of genuine concern for the threats posed by fascism.
Evgeny: Why was science in such demand by policy-makers and military during the war?
Jon: In part because it allowed to get a grasp of reality in an analytically rigorous way. Take operational research, which illustrates how science can address simplified representations of complex situations. War is incredibly complex, and science offers a way to deal with this complexity by simplifying representations of the world.
For example, operations rooms, developed primarily for radar systems, allowed scientists to work with drastically simplified images of the world. Operations rooms were designed to process reports from various sources and reduce the excess confusion, resulting in standardized pictures of the world. Operational research, in turn, focused on analyzing these simplified representations instead of the war itself.
Evgeny: Can you provide an example of how operational research was applied to address specific challenges during the war?
Jon: One instance involves determining the most effective way to detect U-boats. Analyzing data through operational research concluded that dedicating more time to maintaining aircraft was more effective than constantly searching for U-boats. This counterintuitive approach led to the increased sinking of U-boats and more successful goods transportation across the Atlantic.
OR AFTER THE SECOND WORLD WAR
Evgeny: How has the field of operational research evolved since WWII, and in what ways has it been applied to other complex situations?
Jon: Operational research has grown to tackle various complex aspects of the world, such as economies, countries, and environments. It offers a framework for addressing challenging issues scientifically by employing simplified models and analytical techniques.
Evgeny: How did the work of scientists during WWII influence their views on socialism and the potential of science to contribute to a planned economy?
Jon: During WWII, scientists working on war-related projects viewed their efforts as serving a vital state-directed cause. In this context, their technical knowledge and skills guided decision-making within a government-led initiative. This experience resonated with left-wing scientists, reinforcing their belief that science could contribute to a planned, socialized economy. However, the capitalist world also offers various causes and directions for scientific pursuit. For individuals like Patrick Blackett, their wartime experience affirmed they were on the right path.
Evgeny: Can you elaborate on how the radar was developed?
Jon: In WWI, Britain faced air threats from Zeppelins, especially in London. The system designed to counter these airships had many features later seen in WWII radar systems. There was an organized network of observers providing information to a central hub to direct anti-Zeppelin operations, and the London Air Defence Area resembled the reporting and operations systems later incorporated into radar. After WWI, this model was archived and eventually rediscovered with electronics and radio technology advancement. In the early 1930s, scientists realized radio waves could bounce off objects, including aircraft, leading to the development of "radio direction finding" or "radar."
The significance of radar lies not only in its ability to detect incoming aircraft using radio waves but also in its role within an extensive information reporting system. Initially, human observers and acoustic detection methods provided crucial information on enemy activity. However, electronic components eventually became more prominent, with an increasingly automated network of early warning radar systems supplying data to central locations for processing and organization. This shift marked the beginning of viewing these systems in terms of information.
Evgeny: That’s interesting. It’s not a term that often comes up in the context of discussing technological developments in the early 1940s, right?
Jon: Absolutely. People often associate the term "information age" with electronic computers or post-war developments, but the concept of information systems actually dates back to radar systems used during WWII. These human-machine systems were designed to gather intelligence and observations, and they served as the precursors to modern information systems.
Radar represents a system that distills intelligence into a form now referred to as "information." As these systems grew more complex and automated, especially with the post-war introduction of electronic computers, information became the essential component that moved within these networks. Radar systems were the foundation for today's information systems.
To make informed decisions, data from different sources had to be synthesized. Inconsistencies and excessive information were common. Techniques were developed to standardize the data representation, stripping it down to its most useful form. These "filter rooms" were situated between the sensors and the decision-making center. The rooms functioned to reduce and standardize the information, making it more suitable for decision-making and scientific analysis.
Evgeny: Could you provide some examples of techniques used in filter rooms?
Jon: Filter rooms employed various government, industry, and commerce techniques. One example is the stock ticker, an electronic boardroom system for quickly transmitting standardized stock information. Another example is the standardized form, a simple yet essential information technology that makes data more comparable and easier to understand.
Evgeny: How did scientific management techniques in business contribute to filter rooms' efficiency?
Jon: Businesses at the time were interested in scientific management techniques, which included standard filing systems, standardized forms, and machines for information processing and storage, such as punch cards. These techniques were instrumental in making filter rooms more efficient.
Evgeny: How does the development of information technology relate to the broader history of government and warfare?
Jon: The development of information technology is deeply connected to government and warfare, as wars are typically conducted by bureaucracies that rely on these technologies. Although the term "information technology" is retrospective, there is a longstanding overlap between the evolution of state and government functions and the advancement of information technologies.
Although one might think that information technologies gained prominence during the Cold War or Gulf War, even in the mid-20th century, radar systems were primarily focused on information management. The concept of an information system was already in use during this period.
Evgeny: Which sectors in Britain saw the most success with operational research?
Jon: Operational research, a technocratic, expert-based movement, has offered its problem-solving services to government and industry. In Britain, the coal and steel industries have been the most significant beneficiaries of operational research, with the latter being where Stafford Beer thrived. These two sectors represent the largest industrial applications of operational research.
The government has employed operational research, and it continues to do so. However, it constitutes a minor portion of the expertise, with some notable examples. The Army Operational Research Group has contributed to the development of radio astronomy.
Evgeny: Can you discuss the role of technocratic expert groups in the British civil service and how their relationship with operational research has evolved?
Jon: The British civil service is a vast entity often perceived as being dominated by arts graduates who lack an understanding of science and technology. However, numerous technocratic expert groups exist within the civil service, some of which have made significant progress behind the scenes, focusing on applying technical knowledge, machinery adoption, and internal government reform.
This dynamic has occasionally led to skepticism towards operational research, as it may not align with their preferred technical expertise. There has also been some skepticism about commercial interests and certain management branches. While this analysis risks echoing common criticisms of the British state for not appreciating or adopting industry ideas, it is worth noting that there have been instances of dismissive responses to management experts. This can partly be attributed to the belief that they already possess their own management experts.
Evgeny: Can you describe the OR radicalization in the 1970s and how it affected the field of science and politics?
Jon: The British Society for Social Responsibility in Science emerged at the end of the 1960s, bringing together established figures like Joseph Needham and a new generation of critical thinkers. During the 1970s, a movement of scientists began questioning the role of science in society, ultimately leading to the development of social studies of science as an academic discipline. This fascinating period blended history, philosophy, politics, and science, with some operational researchers joining the ranks of radicalized scientists.
Evgeny: How did radical operational researchers !!!SIDENOTE utilize their expertise to address the world's problems while being critical of their own field?
Jon: Operational researchers, such as Jonathan Rosenhead, recognized the potential in merging political belief, scientific expertise, and technical ability to tackle global issues. Simultaneously, they were highly self-critical, producing works that scrutinized the state of OR and investigated how it could be applied in innovative, radical ways. While not all operational researchers shared this perspective, some politically radical individuals attempted to launch a magazine called OR-gasm, though I have never located a copy.
Evgeny: Compared to other figures in British management or the scientific and technical elite, how did Stafford Beer's heterodox interests and diverse pursuits set him apart?
Jon: Stafford Beer was quite unusual, as he had heterodox interests in Eastern mysticism and a broad philosophical, scientific, and management scope. I can't think of anyone in the world of British management with such a diverse range of interests. While there may have been some overlap between strong religious beliefs and accomplishments in science, those worlds were usually kept private and separate, even if practiced by the same person. Stafford Beer appears quite unique in this respect, and there was likely a well-trodden path from Hampstead to the Athenaeum !!!SIDENOTE for him.
Evgeny: Since you mentioned the Athenaeum and since the club played such an important role in Stafford Beer’s life, let’s try to draw out its broader importance for Britain’s intellectual life. How would you describe it?
Jon: The Athenaeum is distinct from others due to its membership consisting of high-ranking civil servants and scientists. Its proximity to the Royal Society and major Whitehall !!!SIDENOTE departments made it an ideal spot for off-the-record discussions about science policy. The government played a significant role in funding the sciences during this period. Senior fellows of the Royal Society would frequent the Athenaeum, forming the elite of the British scientific establishment. Although we don't know the conversations verbatim, we can deduce that it was a place for negotiation, raising issues, and exchanging ideas or concerns, thanks to occasional mentions in memoirs of senior scientists and civil servants. The Athenaeum represents the informal, high-level politics that characterized Britain's function at the time.
Evgeny: In a footnote in one of your books, you cite an exchange between two civil servants where they explicitly accuse Stafford Beer of being a charlatan. Why do you think he was seen that way?
I think the response to Stafford Beer may well have been one of those instances where the individual's character played a role. Stafford Beer was an unusual character, and it could be that civil servants had a more personal reaction to him rather than solely focusing on his expertise. These consultancies were often lobbying for government influence or contracts, and as commercial services, a respectable civil servant might not have been able to welcome them with open arms.
Evgeny: What factors contributed to Stafford Beer being perceived as an unusual figure in his field?
Jon: Stafford Beer's unconventional nature likely stemmed from his resistance to being easily categorized, even as an operational researcher. He applied his knowledge dramatically, making bold claims about its impact, distinguishing him from others in his field. Additionally, he developed theories and ideas related to systems and cybernetics, which also faced a mixed reception. These factors contributed to the perception of Stafford Beer as someone to approach with caution, particularly for public and civil servants.
Evgeny: In your view, what factors accounted for the rather chilly reception that Beer’s Project Cybersyn !!!SIDENOTE received in the UK and globally?
Jon: Centralized, computerized states stirred concerns about surveillance and authoritarianism, both in the UK and worldwide. Literary examples like George Orwell's 1984 portrayed the dangers of such systems. Privacy became a sensitive topic in the 1960s, often expressed as concerns about databases. People on both the right and left had reservations about Project Cybersyn. The right saw it as a potential consequence of a planned, Stalinist state, while the left viewed it as top-down surveillance of workers, leading to a loss of privacy and control. Ironically, this perception contrasted with Stafford Beer's own convictions about the project. At the time, some on the left saw Cybersyn as a Big Brother state in formation, although this critique may not have been well-informed.
Evgeny: What makes the story of Cybersyn so attractive and interesting today? Are there any lessons we can draw from it for our modern information technology landscape?
Jon: Stafford Beer's alternative lifestyle and the playful side of British cybernetics make the story intriguing. Cybersyn stands out with its retro chic, South American setting, large scale, and ambitious goals. The project presents a non-militaristic example of computing technology, with elements of progress and tragedy. However, it may not offer direct lessons for today's information technology landscape, as it was a top-down, command-and-control system with limitations. Its appeal lies in its unique story and the characters involved, such as Beer and Allende, rather than its applicability as a modern model.
COLD WAR AND ITS IDEAS
Evgeny: Evgeny: In some of your past writings, you have offered an interesting argument about how the Cold War was not at all as intellectually stifling and politically oppressive as we tend to believe. Can you expand on that?
Jon: In quite surprising ways, the Cold War encouraged criticisms of the system itself. It necessitated massive scientific and technological research due to the existential threat of nuclear destruction. This research and development competition led to the emergence of new ideas and systems, resulting in unexpected feedback and criticism of the system. One example of this was President Eisenhower's famous farewell address, where he questioned the growing links between university research and the military, despite being responsible for overseeing the system's development.
Evgeny: Can you provide an example of how computer modeling was used to critique the direction of the world during the Cold War?
Jon: A prime example would be the Club of Rome's !!!SIDENOTE predictions in the early 1970s, which warned of imminent industrial collapse due to pollution and other factors. These predictions were based on computer models developed by Jay Forrester !!!SIDENOTE, an electrical engineer turned computer scientist. Forrester had previously worked on large-scale computerized command-and-control systems at MIT !!!SIDENOTE in the 1940s, central to Cold War military systems like SAGE. His work on the computer models for the Club of Rome led to a global-scale critique of the world's environmental state, as well as its industry and economy, which became a key argument in the environmental criticism of industrial society during the 1970s.
Evgeny: How was "The Limits to Growth" !!!SIDENOTE received in Britain, and how did it impact the government's approach to future planning and modeling?
Jon: Despite skepticism towards the specific predictions in "The Limits to Growth," British politicians and senior scientific advisors were intrigued by the concept of modeling large systems over long periods. This led to the formation of the Committee on Long-Term World Trends, which used Club of Rome-style models for future planning. The British government's embrace of futurology created a space for acknowledging and addressing issues like climate change, looking 50-100 years into the future. The use of computer modeling added scientific credibility, with the Club of Rome's vision of modeling's potential having a significant, albeit behind-the-scenes, influence.
These publications significantly contributed to global discussions about the consequences of population growth and potential resource depletion. They presented scientific models and forecasts emphasizing the risks of unchecked growth and the need for sustainable practices.
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- British Scientists and the Cold War: The Defence Research Policy Committee and Information Networks, 1947-1963 on JSTOR.
- Agar, Jon. “What Difference Did Computers Make?” Social Studies of Science, vol. 36, no. 6, SAGE Publishing, Dec. 2006, pp. 869–907.
- Agar, Jon. “Digital Patina: Texts, Spirit and the First Computer.” History and Technology, vol. 15, no. 1–2, Routledge, Sept. 1998, pp. 121–35.