As a formal discipline, operational research originated in the efforts of military planners during World War II. In the decades after the war, the techniques were more widely applied to problems in business, industry and society. Since that time, operational research has expanded into a field widely used in industries ranging from petrochemicals to airlines, finance, logistics, and government, moving to a focus on the development of mathematical models that can be used to analyse and optimize complex systems, and has become an area of active academic and industrial research.
Early work in operational research was carried out by individuals such as Charles Babbage. His research into the cost of transportation and sorting of mail led to England’s universal “Penny Post” in 1840, and studies into the dynamical behaviour of railway vehicles in defence of the GWR’s broad gauge. Percy Bridgman brought operational research to bear on problems in physics in the 1920s and would later attempt to extend these to the social sciences.
Modern operational research originated at the Bawdsey Research Station in the UK in 1937 and was the result of an initiative of the station’s superintendent, A. P. Rowe. Rowe conceived the idea as a means to analyse and improve the working of the UK’s early warning radar system, Chain Home (CH). Initially, he analysed the operating of the radar equipment and its communication networks, expanding later to include the operating personnel’s behaviour. This revealed unappreciated limitations of the CH network and allowed remedial action to be taken.
Scientists in the United Kingdom including Patrick Blackett (later Lord Blackett OM PRS), Cecil Gordon, Solly Zuckerman, (later Baron Zuckerman OM, KCB, FRS), C. H. Waddington, Owen Wansbrough-Jones, Frank Yates, Jacob Bronowskiand Freeman Dyson, and in the United States with George Dantzig looked for ways to make better decisions in such areas as logistics and training schedules
Second World War
The modern field of operational research arose during World War II. In the World War II era, operational research was defined as “a scientific method of providing executive departments with a quantitative basis for decisions regarding the operations under their control.” Other names for it included operational analysis (UK Ministry of Defence from 1962) and quantitative management.
During the Second World War close to 1,000 men and women in Britain were engaged in operational research. About 200 operational research scientists worked for the British Army.
Patrick Blackett worked for several different organizations during the war. Early in the war while working for the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) he set up a team known as the “Circus” which helped to reduce the number of anti-aircraft artillery rounds needed to shoot down an enemy aircraft from an average of over 20,000 at the start of the Battle of Britain to 4,000 in 1941.
In 1941 Blackett moved from the RAE to the Navy, after first working with RAF Coastal Command, in 1941 and then early in 1942 to the Admiralty. Blackett’s team at Coastal Command’s Operational Research Section (CC-ORS) included two future Nobel prize winners and many other people who went on to be pre-eminent in their fields. They undertook a number of crucial analyses that aided the war effort. Britain introduced the convoy system to reduce shipping losses, but while the principle of using warships to accompany merchant ships was generally accepted, it was unclear whether it was better for convoys to be small or large. Convoys travel at the speed of the slowest member, so small convoys can travel faster. It was also argued that small convoys would be harder for German U-boats to detect. On the other hand, large convoys could deploy more warships against an attacker. Blackett’s staff showed that the losses suffered by convoys depended largely on the number of escort vessels present, rather than the size of the convoy. Their conclusion was that a few large convoys are more defensible than many small ones.
Other work by the CC-ORS indicated that on average if the trigger depth of aerial-delivered depth charges (DCs) were changed from 100 feet to 25 feet, the kill ratios would go up. The reason was that if a U-boat saw an aircraft only shortly before it arrived over the target then at 100 feet the charges would do no damage (because the U-boat wouldn’t have had time to descend as far as 100 feet), and if it saw the aircraft a long way from the target it had time to alter course under water so the chances of it being within the 20-foot kill zone of the charges was small. It was more efficient to attack those submarines close to the surface when the targets’ locations were better known than to attempt their destruction at greater depths when their positions could only be guessed. Before the change of settings from 100 feet to 25 feet, 1% of submerged U-boats were sunk and 14% damaged. After the change, 7% were sunk and 11% damaged. (If submarines were caught on the surface, even if attacked shortly after submerging, the numbers rose to 11% sunk and 15% damaged). Blackett observed “there can be few cases where such a great operational gain had been obtained by such a small and simple change of tactics”.
Bomber Command’s Operational Research Section (BC-ORS), analysed a report of a survey carried out by RAF Bomber Command. For the survey, Bomber Command inspected all bombers returning from bombing raids over Germany over a particular period. All damage inflicted by German air defence was noted and the recommendation was given that armour be added in the most heavily damaged areas. This recommendation was not adopted because the fact that the aircraft returned with these areas damaged indicated these areas were NOT vital, and adding armour to non-vital areas where damage is acceptable negatively affects aircraft performance. Their suggestion to remove some of the crew so that an aircraft loss would result in fewer personnel losses, was also rejected by RAF command. Blackett’s team made the logical recommendation that the armour be placed in the areas which were completely untouched by damage in the bombers which returned. They reasoned that the survey was biased, since it only included aircraft that returned to Britain. The untouched areas of returning aircraft were probably vital areas, which, if hit, would result in the loss of the aircraft.
The “exchange rate” ratio of output to input was a characteristic feature of operational research. By comparing the number of flying hours put in by Allied aircraft to the number of U-boat sightings in a given area, it was possible to redistribute aircraft to more productive patrol areas. Comparison of exchange rates established “effectiveness ratios” useful in planning. The ratio of 60 mines laid per ship sunk was common to several campaigns: German mines in British ports, British mines on German routes, and United States mines in Japanese routes.
Operational research doubled the on-target bomb rate of B-29s bombing Japan from the Marianas Islands by increasing the training ratio from 4 to 10 percent of flying hours; revealed that wolf-packs of three United States submarines were the most effective number to enable all members of the pack to engage targets discovered on their individual patrol stations; revealed that glossy enamel paint was more effective camouflage for night fighters than traditional dull camouflage paint finish, and the smooth paint finish increased airspeed by reducing skin friction.
On land, the operational research sections of the Army Operational Research Group (AORG) of the Ministry of Supply (MoS) were landed in Normandy in 1944, and they followed British forces in the advance across Europe. They analysed, among other topics, the effectiveness of artillery, aerial bombing and anti-tank shooting.
After World War II
With expanded techniques and growing awareness of the field at the close of the war, operational research was no longer limited to only operational, but was extended to encompass equipment procurement, training, logistics and infrastructure. Operations Research also grew in many areas other than the military once scientists learned to apply its principles to the civilian sector. With the development of the simplex algorithm for Linear Programming in 1947 and the development of computers over the next three decades, Operations Research can now “solve problems with hundreds of thousands of variables and constraints. Moreover, the large volumes of data required for such problems can be stored and manipulated very efficiently.”
 “About Operations Research”. INFORMS.org. Retrieved 7 January 2012.
 “operations research (industrial engineering) History – Britannica Online Encyclopedia”. Britannica.com. Retrieved13 November 2011.