On Stafford Beer's connections in radical leftist circles and criticisms of aiding in building Big Brother technology, featuring insights from a former United Steel employee.
Jonathan Rosenhead is an operational researcher and Emeritus Professor at the London School of Economics, recognized for his contributions to operational research and his activism. This conversation took place on July 19, 2021, and has been edited for clarity and conciseness. Our discussion explored his experience working with Stafford Beer and his connection to radical leftist circles. We also touched upon the criticisms Stafford Beer received for allegedly aiding Ireland in building Big Brother technology and how his social class and lifestyle impacted his reception in various radical circles.
Evgeny: Hi Jonathan, could you please introduce yourself and explain your connection to Stafford Beer?
Jonathan: My name is Jonathan Rosenhead, and I am an emeritus professor of operational research at the London School of Economics. I met Stafford Beer when I was a student of about 20 years old (this would have been 1958 or so). Stafford came to give a talk at Cambridge, and I was on the committee of the Cambridge student mathematicians' society called “the Archimedeans.” After the talk, he came back to my college, and two or three of us walked with him. He spent several hours there talking and talking fascinatingly while chain-smoking cigars and drinking something from a hip flask at regular intervals. This meeting persuaded me that operational research might be something I could do when I left university. So I followed him to United Steel Companies .
Evgeny: Could you tell me more about your experience working with Beer?
Jonathan: Unfortunately, I missed him by two days at United Steel, where he had started the Operational Research group - he left it right before I came. However, his presence was everywhere. People were talking about Stafford – those who loved and hated him; there was a total division. They had completely different pictures of him, either a genius or a charlatan. And that was from people who'd worked with him.
Evgeny: Can you tell us about your experience at United Steel?
Jonathan: During my time at United Steel, I spent most of my time in my department or visiting steelworks, measuring things, and talking to people there. The head office was a different story as only important people went there. Although I visited there once or twice, they usually came to us. As an alien outgrowth of the steel industry, they were remarkable because we employed fewer graduates in our senior management or management structure than any other major industry. Our industry was very backward, and Stafford, our leader, employed all these slightly crazy people who were young, progressive in politics, and unconventional.
Evgeny: How did the simulation model that Beer developed for United Steel work?
Jonathan: We built a computer modeling approach that could be used to simulate the actions and operations of particular steel-making processes. We randomly generated a time when an ingot comes out of the furnace and a processing time for the different stages. If there are two cranes, it will be handled differently than if there were one crane. We then run this simulation for a sufficient period, long enough to get an idea of whether the change in production is significant. The model is only good enough insofar as the data we feed into it is accurate. It also misses out on a lot of stuff that goes on in steelworks because the model is a simplification of the real world.
Evgeny: How was the model used?
Jonathan: The managers of the steelworks would come in and use the simulation as a game. They would sit and make inputs. They would look at what the model was showing and make inputs to make a decision. So it's a mixture of automatic decisions generated inside the computer and gaming decisions made by the managers working out what they would do if confronted with that situation. That was quite advanced for 1961 or 62.
Jonathan: Tocher was a big character from East End London, and he applied for a job at United Steel. Stafford Beer knew of him and hired him. Tocher developed simulation and wrote The Art of Simulation , which was the first text on how to do a simulation in the world. This gave Britain a head start in the simulation field. Simulation was different from cybernetics, and the cybernetic model had not yet been developed by Stafford at that point. United Steel used a computer model as the centerpiece for decision-making, with managers giving inputs to the model, observing how it behaved, and giving more inputs. This is similar to what happened in Chile, where Allende and other people interacted with the Cyberstride programs.
Jonathan: Cybor House was named from the words “CYBernetics” and “Operational Research.” Stafford was very invested in cybernetics. It was initially one house, but by the time I'd arrived, there were two adjoining houses. They were Victorian, huge detached houses with gardens, and they were next to each other, near the headquarters of United Steel.
Evgeny: Were there any frictions between Beer and the old management of United Steel?
Jonathan: Stafford's leadership challenged the stale management of United Steel, all of whom had started work near the bottom of the management tree. They spent their lifetime working their way up the management hierarchy, not handling hot ingots but working their way up.
Evgeny: What was the impact of Stafford's innovative ideas on the steel industry?
Jonathan: Very few of Stafford's innovative ideas on the steel industry stuck. They depended on his charisma to be maintained, and without him, it was hard to back them up. Some of the things Stafford did with simulation became much more major. They became national and international things. It would have happened anyhow, but it happened at a very early stage in a pioneering way at United Steel.
Evgeny: How did you end up joining Stafford Beer at Sigma?
Jonathan: I went to the annual meeting of the Royal Statistical Society and met Andrew Muir there. Muir had left United Steel to work with Stafford in the new consultancy he'd set up. He asked me to join them in Croydon, and I accepted. I was interviewed and joined Stafford, Andrew Muir, and other people in Croydon at the offices of Sigma, which stood for Science in General Management Limited. This was the first viable operational research consultancy in Britain.
Evgeny: What kind of projects did you work on while at Sigma?
Jonathan: My first job was working on stock holding rules for an organization called NAAFI , which stands for Navy Army and Air Force Institute. Some of the projects I worked on were quite mundane, but the organization needed to earn money and could only do the work it was paid to do.
Evgeny: How did you career in Sigma advance?
Jonathan: In 1966, there was a mass sacking at the company, which they called Night of The Long Knives. Six people, including me, were asked to leave on the pretext that the French bank that owned the parent company (BNP Paribas) had insisted on cutting the staff. I was a labor candidate for parliament at the time, so I took my time leaving. They didn't mind me staying, and by the time I was ready to leave, they told me I didn't need to. However, I had already made arrangements to work with Russ Ackoff in his group at the University of Pennsylvania, so I left anyway. After three and a half years, I thought it was time to leave. My understanding is that the bank became a major player in the company's day-to-day operations. Stafford and Roger, whom we regarded as protecting us, were no longer in the picture.
Andrew Muir, who preceded me at United Steel, went to work for Stafford in Sigma. He became responsible for the work in Chile, and a Spaniard, Marino Dizy, stayed in Chile, managing the work on a day-to-day basis. I don't know which one of them was responsible for initiating the contact, but I guess it was a contact from Chile to Stafford as a known steel person, and we then doubled down and tried to make it happen.
Evgeny: Who were the major players in the company's early phase?
Jonathan: Most of the people I am in touch with were there in the early phase, which I call the pioneering phase. The three people selling contracts were Stafford, Roger, and Andrew Muir. Our existence depended on these contracts, and when they got a contract, people would stand applauding them. As we grew, the management structure grew. They appointed people, some of whom were excellent, like Major General Lancelot Perowne, who did a lot of the infrastructure side of things. Other people with more conventional management backgrounds came in and didn't fit.
Evgeny: Could you describe the Sigmoots?
Jonathan: Sigmoots were part of Stafford's innovations. I know they took place, but I can't remember being at one. I think they were an opportunity for people to generate creative ideas and discuss them and not just act in one role on a project. People could talk about their projects and get feedback from others or talk about things that weren't projects. So it was an attempt to get cross-fertilization. However, my experience is vaguely remembering being at something like that.
Evgeny: What can you tell us about Beer’s office?
Jonathan: When I worked with Stafford, I was at the bottom of the rank and didn't go into his office often. Instead, I met him when he came out. There was an antechamber with three women, including his secretary Christine and a project assistant named Gloria Gillott. Although I can't recall the third woman's name, I do remember that they all had slightly different roles. Some jokingly referred to this trio as Stafford’s “harem.”
Stafford's office was large, and he chain-smoked cigars, creating a fog of smoke. However, you could still see Stafford in it. On most occasions when I was with him, he always had a hip flask, which I believed contained whiskey. Later on, his doctors told him he was drinking too much, and he substituted wine, or maybe it was whiskey diluted with water. He was always liable to take a sip, especially in the evening.
Evgeny: Could you give an example of how Stafford Beer's principles and ideas were reflected in Sigma’s daily routines?
Jonathan: Stafford believed that top-down hierarchies were bad and that people at lower levels should cross-fertilize. He renamed the library as the "Interaction Space," which was supposed to encourage people to interact with each other instead of being a quiet place where people leafed through data banks or read books. It was seen as good for everybody.
Evgeny: How did you become involved with cybernetics?
Jonathan: Before joining United Steel, I knew of cybernetics, but not through the work of Stafford Beer. I wasn't aware of his book, Cybernetics and Management, which he wrote while working at United Steel. However, I learned about cybernetics by listening to the people Stafford had recruited. I remained an operational research person rather than a cybernetician.
Evgeny: Can you tell me about operational research and its development?
Jonathan: Operational research developed in World War II and had a track record of practical experience. That's why it was taken into industry and eventually government in England after the War. Operational research became much more respectable as it became more mathematized. It was something that could be taught in universities because it had models dealing with real-world data and was safer. Cybernetics always seemed riskier, and maybe that's why I avoided it, but I stuck with the operational research angle.
Evgeny: Can you tell us about how the Operational Research Club was founded?
Jonathan: Cecil Gordon was a key figure in one of the main operational research groups during the war, the coastal command Operational Research Group. Sir Henry Tizard was head of the government committee that developed radar pre-war. Because of this role, he became involved with operational research during the war. PMS (later Lord) Blackett , together with Gordon, Tizard, and Sir Charles Goodeve founded the OR Club in 1948. The club met monthly and aimed to promote the adoption of operational research by the government and industry. Blackett became the father figure of operational research.
Evgeny: Can you tell us about the different operational research groups and their representatives in the 1948 meeting?
Jonathan: Goodeve was a senior academic who worked in the Navy and started doing war work. He masterminded degaussing and was given a senior post in the nationalized steel industry for its collaborative research arm after the war. He employed a lot of operational research there, so he represented one major operational research group. Cecil Gordon went from working in the coastal command group to being in an internal departmental OR group at the board of trade. Blackett was an academic par excellence, and Tizard was an influential government scientific administrator and academic.
Evgeny: When was the Operational Research Society established?
Jonathan: In 1953, the OR club changed its name to the Operational Research Society. It was the first operational research society in the world – that's why it called itself the Operational Research Society without adding "British." The first international gathering of operational researchers took place in 1956 in Oxford.
Evgeny: Were social scientists ever involved in working with Beer?
Jonathan: Stafford attempted to recruit social scientists while working at United Steel, but he was unsuccessful. However, when he moved to Sigma, he put up an advertisement and recruited at least three or four social scientists, including a sociologist and an anthropologist. However, there was little time to imbue an ethnographic spirit into the organization. It would have taken a serious effort, and maybe even a dedicated ethnographic unit, to bring everyone together and develop a shared understanding.
Finding a common language between the social scientists and the physical or mathematical scientists proved to be difficult. One group would have to "come over to the other side" and find a way to express themselves either in numbers, models, variables, formulae, or in words, ideas, and concepts. The social scientists may have been slightly better at this than the other group.
Evgeny: Can you tell me more about how Operational Research rose to prominence in Britain?
Jonathan: OR was highly regarded and fashionable in 1947. It had accomplished remarkable achievements during the Second World War, but the question remained about how to apply it to a country that was threatened by the lack of coal, loss of colonies, loss of the empire, and a world in debt. OR found its place in British industry at a low level, working with production controllers instead of managing directors. Stafford, one of the pioneers in OR, started as a production controller at United Steel. Due to his personality, he was able to move up the hierarchy and tackle more interesting problems, but he was still restricted to production issues, as OR was generally not involved in strategic problems.
Evgeny: What was the role of OR in the computer industry?
Jonathan: Although OR was initially employed at a mundane level, it was the first field to use computers. Most firms with OR departments also developed computer departments, and sometimes OR and computing were combined. OR was also the first to develop models of organizational processes. The Covid pandemic has made the public aware of the importance of models, but OR had been using them long before. Once their usefulness was recognized, models began to be used extensively in organizations, and OR no longer had a monopoly on either computers or models.
Evgeny: How was OR involved in the privatization of industries by Thatcher?
Jonathan: Thatcher even used OR to create markets where there were none. She privatized many nationalized industries like electricity, steel, coal, transport, and railways, which were the groups that brought in OR. In the electricity industry, Thatcher wanted to create a market where there was only one set of electricity pylons, and all suppliers were pumping electricity. OR consultants were then employed to create models that would represent how electricity could be allocated from different suppliers to consumers as if there were different cables. OR was used to create a simulated market where there wasn't a physical one because it was impossible to have it otherwise. Thatcher increased the number of operational researchers in the government to evaluate how well projects were going by setting up performance indicators rather than figuring out what should have been done in the first place. OR then dropped out of planning but grew because it became involved in evaluation.
OR has gone through several post-war transformations, from being highly regarded to being employed at a low level, to becoming computer experts and developing models of organizational practice. OR lost access to strategic problems but developed an increasing involvement with evaluation. Although OR lost its radical edge, it was still employed to create markets where there were none, and it played a significant role in the privatization of many industries by Thatcher.
Evgeny: You’ve written a very interesting article about Cecil Gordon, another important figure in the history of OR. Who was he?
Jonathan: Cecil Gordon worked as Head of Coastal Command during the war and later for the Board of Trade. His unit there developed the coupon system, which allocated goods based on need rather than how much money people had. This was the most radical work done by the government after the war. However, in 1948, during the red scare, he was kicked out of the government.
As an interesting aside, let me point out that there was also another guy, Stephen Bodington . He presented the idea that computers could replace the market and link producers with demand. This would be done through negotiations. This utopian idea was generated by people who believed that capitalism had too many flaws and that there should be a way to avoid surplus value going to those who supplied the capital.
In a way, Stafford's idea of algedonic signals employed in Chile was similar to Stephen Bodington's communication system which utilized simplified tokens of need without relying on money.
Evgeny: Did Stafford Beer identify himself as a Marxist?
Jonathan: Although Stafford may not have identified himself as a Marxist, he believed in socialist ideals and that people should have rights that were impossible under capitalism.
Evgeny: Can you tell me a little bit about the Radical Science movement in Britain in the late 1960s?
Jonathan: In 1969, I was part of a group of radical scientists in Britain that grew rapidly, reaching 1200-1300 members, and lasted for two decades. We started publishing a magazine called Science for People .
Stafford Beer was working in Chile, and I organized a meeting between him and a group of interested people from the Radical Science movement to talk about his work in Chile. However, I was not present at the meeting, and it seems it did not go well. A critical article was published in Science for People. Those on the left believed in a bottom-up approach to things, while Stafford's methods were hierarchical. During a talk in Brighton, Stafford called his model Fanfare for Effective Freedom , but some of us were worried that it wasn't capable of delivering freedom because it was hierarchical and might even facilitate top-down control.
Evgeny: How did Beer react?
Jonathan: Stafford wrote a counter-piece, where he accused his detractors of “evincing no cybernetic consciousness" or something of the sort, saying they had failed to understand cybernetics. There were no further rounds of discussion, but I think it meant there was no effective symbiosis between Stafford and the Radical Science movement.
Evgeny: How did Beer deal with the shock of what happened in Chile?
Jonathan: Stafford Beer had multiple crises over this period, including the end of his marriage, leaving the IPC group, and the violent end of his project in Chile. He spent around a year trying to get people out of Chile and getting them into jobs because he felt very responsible for it. He had something nearing a breakdown and got rid of all his possessions. He went to live in a cottage in Wales with no electricity, no running water, etc.
Evgeny: Did Beer have any Marxist influences among his acquaintances?
Jonathan: I doubt Stafford would have met Marxists in the circles where he moved, whether in his home life, school, military, or steel industry. This was the Cold War, so to be called a Marxist was like being called a child rapist.
Evgeny: How did the British upper circles receive Beer?
Jonathan: The British upper circles did not receive Stafford well. He was fundamentally un-British. He was flamboyant, he painted, did philosophy, wrote poems, translated, and did psychotherapeutic stuff. By the time he could have gotten in, he no longer wanted to.
ROSENHEAD IN LATIN AMERICA
Evgeny: I know that you had your own Beer-esque adventure in Latin America a few decades later. Can you say more about it?
Jonathan: Before Hugo Chávez became president, a group of planners called the Dead Planners Society was discussing how to plan for a better Venezuela. I knew two members of that group, one of whom was Jorge Giordani .
Evgeny: How did you know Jorge?
Jonathan: A professor of planning at the Central University in Caracas, he became an academic visitor in my department in the early 1990s. I had introduced Jorge to individuals engaged in similar work to mine, a field now known as problem structuring methods, or sometimes "soft operational research for communities." This type of operational research required less emphasis on advanced mathematics. Jorge met with these professionals and even spoke at a conference I had organized in India. We subsequently developed a sort of kinship.
When Chavez was elected President, he took Giordani into the Government. Chavez had been imprisoned, and during this period, Giordani visited him and lectured him on economics. This education led to Giordani's appointment as the Minister of Planning. A former student of mine was also now in a rather high position in Venezuela, and both of them thought it was a good idea for me to visit. And so I did, initially for just a week.
Evgeny: Did you go alone or was there a team of some kind? And what came out of those efforts?
Jonathan: John Friend, the pioneer of the strategic choice approach, often accompanied me on these endeavors. We preferred to work in tandem whenever possible. While we made progress, I wouldn't call our endeavor a resounding success. Despite this, I visited annually, barring a few years when, following the coup against Chavez, he dismissed Jorge Giordani. However, Chavez soon reinstated him.
Our work was implemented only partially under Chavez. There was an interactive process Agenda del Decisor, where representatives from the planning ministry facilitated groups confronting various issues. These groups primarily consisted of state governors and senior mayors who were tasked with agreeing on a plan for their respective states.
Evgeny: What did you make of Chavez when you met him?
Jonathan: He had a formidable character and liked to control things. I only met him once, and it stayed with me. I could sense the subtlety and the tremendous force of personality and conviction.
Watch an extract of Jonathan's interview (credit: Chiara di Leone)
Evgeny: Even before the Venezuelan engagement, you got a reputation as a big promoter of what came to be known as Community Operational Research. Can you explain what it is?
Jonathan: Community Operational Research emerged from the Radical Science movement of the 1960s and 70s, of which I was an active participant. Interestingly, I continually encountered operational researchers within this movement, suggesting a persisting radical element. Together, we formed a small group within the Operational Research Society, pushing back against moves toward unnecessary professionalization. We were victorious, but engagement gradually subsided, and attempts to professionalize by introducing hierarchical levels of membership and demanding qualifications for higher-level roles resumed.
As these changes loomed, I was urged to stand for president to resist these pressures. My campaign focused on three main principles: working for non-hierarchical organizations, developing methods capable of being understood by non-experts, and addressing the world's significant problems such as hunger. These ideas weren't conjured from thin air; they were a culmination of discussions within the Radical Science movement. To everyone's surprise, I won, marking only the second contested presidential election in the society's history. This victory gave me a mandate to promote participatory methods, now widely accepted within British and, to some extent, international operational research, with some resistance from America.
I championed Community Operational Research, convincing the society to fund a dedicated COR unit for it. This undertook projects for grassroots and bottom-up groups. There has been some wider take-up and nowadays, and operational research conferences often have sessions devoted to this topic.
Jorge Giordani was attracted to this aspect of my work. Operational researchers who engaged with community groups were also keen on applying these softer operational research methods. Thus, this new approach was viewed as non-conflicting and integral to our cause.
A problem-solving and decision-making discipline using advanced analytical methods to help manage an effective organization. Originated in Britain during WWII for integrating technologies (such as the radar) into warfare tactics. More
A steelmaking, engineering, coal mining group based in England. Nationalized and succeeded by the British Steel Corporation. More
British computer scientist who advanced simulation methods in operational research, significantly impacting management and decision-making processes. Worked for United Steel under cybernetic pioneer Stafford Beer. More
Tocher's text on the theory and practice of simulation in decision-making, emphasizing the utility of computer simulations in complex problem-solving. More
Another element of Cybersyn, it was a software for real-time economic control, reflecting the ambitions of Allende's government for a technologically managed economy. More
A pioneering computer center established by Stafford Beer at the United Steel Companies in the UK in the 1960s, exploring ways to streamline industrial management. More
Established in 1921 to provide retail and recreational services to British armed forces, bolstering morale and camaraderie during deployments. More
An American systems thinker and management theorist emphasizing holistic problem-solving and interconnectedness, significantly influencing organizational management and decision-making. More
A British scientist, who contributed significantly to radar development, crucial for the Allied victory in WWII. More
British physicist awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1948 for his development of cloud chamber methods and discoveries on cosmic rays and artificial radioactivity. More
An initiative by Charles Goodeve to establish operational research groups in post-World War II UK, modernizing industries by connecting decision-makers with scientists using diverse techniques to address organizational challenges. More
A nom de plume of John Eaton, a writer on political economy. His 1973 book, "Computers and Socialism," envisioned a utopian use of technology within socialism. More.
Bodington's exploration of the potential for computers to facilitate democratic socialist societies, analyzing both promises and perils, can be found here.
A British magazine that aimed to bridge the gap between scientific research and society, fostering critical thinking and promoting the idea that science should serve people's needs. More
Beer's lecture advocating for the emancipatory potential of cybernetics, and its capacity to create systems fostering effective freedom. More
A prominent publishing company during the 1960s, which controlled a vast media empire but declined due to economic challenges and competition. More
Venezuelan President (1999-2013), populist leader and architect of the "Bolivarian Revolution," known for his socialist policies and nationalization of industries, garnering both fervent support and stark opposition domestically and internationally. His leadership significantly altered Venezuela's political landscape. More
A Venezuelan economist educated at Sussex who played an instrumental role in Hugo Chavez's government as chief planner, shaping Venezuela's economic policies and development strategies. More
- Rosenhead, Jonathan. “Reflections on Fifty Years of Operational Research.” Journal of the Operational Research Society, vol. 60, no. sup1, Palgrave Macmillan, May 2009, pp. S5–15.
- Rosenhead, Jonathan. “Operational Research at the Crossroads: Cecil Gordon and the Development of Post-War OR.” Journal of the Operational Research Society, vol. 40, no. 1, Palgrave Macmillan, Jan. 1989, pp. 2–28.
- Rosenhead, Jonathan. “Obituary Stafford Beer.” Journal of the Operational Research Society, vol. 54, no. 12, Palgrave Macmillan, Dec. 2003, pp. 1231–33.