An Obituary

Professor Jay Wright Forrester (14 July 1918 – 16 November 2016)

 

jay-forrester

An Obituary

By: Alok Raj

Indian Institute of Management Lucknow

E-mail address: fpm15002@iiml.ac.in

Jay W. Forrester, Professor emeritus in the MIT Sloan School of Management, father of System Dynamics, and a pioneer of digital computing passed away in Concord, Massachusetts on 16 November 2016 at the age of 98 due to prostate cancer.

Professor Forrester was born on July 14, 1918, in Nebraska (USA) and grew up on a cattle ranch. He had a keen interest in electrical systems from his early days. During his high school days, he built a wind-driven, 12-volt electrical system using used automobile parts. He received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Nebraska in 1939. Later, he moved to MIT to pursue his Masters. Initially, he worked at MIT’s High Voltage Laboratory as an assistant and later earned a Masters in 1945. From 1939 to 1956, he worked on different projects and pioneered many electrical systems such as servomechanisms, radar controls, and flight-training computers for US Navy. During his Whirlwind project with US Navy, he invented and designed a revolutionary computer component known as magnetic core memory, nowadays called RAM and held a patent on the same till 1949.

Later in 1949, Forrester thought to understand the dynamics of business with the help of his engineering background, this led to the evolution of one of the most revolutionary concepts in operations management, ‘System Dynamics (SD)’ during the mid-1950s. SD is a mathematical approach to understanding the nonlinear behaviour of complex systems over time with the help of stocks, flowsfeedback loops and time delays. Forrester first applied this concept to analyze the boom-and-bust cycle faced by the General Electric (GE) plant in Kentucky. He gave a counterintuitive result that it is not market forces but the internal structure and policies of a manufacturing system that led to an unstable behaviour. Now, SD concept is applied across continents irrespective of business type to understand business dynamics. Forrester explained his business insights to management students with the help of a game known as the ‘Beer Game’. One of the well-known supply chain phenomena, the Bullwhip effect also called the Forrester effect is explained with the help of ‘Beer Game’.

He moved into academia and became a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management in 1956. He expressed his views in a 1989 speech on this change of career, “By 1956, I felt the pioneering days in digital computers were over”. His research interests mainly focused on digital computer development in initial days and the behaviour of economic systems later on. He published many seminal and extremely popular books in both academia and industry, such as ‘Industrial Dynamics’, ‘Urban Dynamics’, and ‘World Dynamics’. His work has been published in leading journals and magazines such as Management Science, European Journal of Operational Research, Journal of the Operational Research Society, Journal of the American Statistical Association, System Dynamics Review, McKinsey Quarterly, Harvard Business Review, and Journal of Applied Physics. His work citation count in Google Scholar is more than thirty thousand. Prof. Forrester was conferred various awards for his books. He was awarded nine honorary degrees from universities around the world and earned National Medal of Technology in 1989 for his contribution in the field of computer development.

His family, students, friends and associates recall the good times they shared with him. He leaves an irreplaceable loss in the academic fraternity. Forrester was married to Susan Forrester, who passed away in 2010. He is survived by a daughter, two sons, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

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