Forrester, father of system dynamics and ECE alum, dies at 98
Jay W. Forrester, a Nebraska Engineering alumnus whose insights into both computing and organizations gave rise to the field of system dynamics, died November 16 at his home in Concord, Massachusetts. He was 98.
Forrester grew up on a western Nebraska cattle ranch 18 miles from Anselmo, the nearest town. He accepted a scholarship to study agriculture at the University of Nebraska, but a storm only a few weeks before he enrolled convinced him to pursue engineering.
“Caring for sick cattle and herding them in Nebraska winter blizzards never had captured my enthusiasm. I had preferred the tractors, machinery and shop work,” Forrester said in a 2011 New York Times interview. “I was generally inclined to the mechanical and electrical things, and since there was no one to fix things, you did it yourself.”
Forrester earned a degree in electrical engineering in 1939 and went on to graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received a master’s degree in 1945 and stayed on to do his pioneering work.
He worked in MIT’s Servomechanisms Laboratory, which did much of its work during World War II for the military. In late 1943, Forrester developed a radar antenna for intercepting aircraft and spent a month at sea on the carrier Lexington as a civilian, helping with the installation of and training for the device.
Back at MIT and working on Whirlwind, the first real-time computing system, Forrester perfected magnetic-core memory in 1951. Those panels, which resembled dense window screens, were the technology of choice in computing until the early 1970s with the advent of random access memory (RAM).
Forrester, however, had abandoned digital computing in 1956 and joined MIT’s Sloan School of Management, where he applied his engineering and computing backgrounds into a new field.
While working on a project for General Electric, Forrester reached a breakthrough while interviewing plant managers. He discovered that fluctuations in many areas of the organization were not caused by external factors, as was expected, but by a dynamic system of internal factors that included policies for inventory control and hiring. Forrester applied data gathered to create a computer simulation, creating the field of system dynamics.
System dynamics, he once wrote, “uses computer simulation to take the knowledge we already have about details in the world around us and to show why our social and physical systems behave the way they do.” It is now included in many business school curriculums, and simulation modeling is applied in many other disciplines, including engineering.
Forrester broadened his approach to this type of modeling in the late 1960s to consider social problems, including urban decay. His 1971 book, “World Dynamics,” explained global modeling, the first simulation that considered the interaction of elements such as population growth, economies, natural resources, food and pollution in the context of the whole world.
Forrester was preceded in death by his wife of 54 years, Susan, who died in 2010. He is survived by a daughter, Judith; two sons, Nathan and Ned; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
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