George E. Kimball

ORSA President, 1967

George E. Kimball was the 13th President of ORSA. He is the person for whom the INFORMS Kimball Medal is named. Kimball was educated as a Quantum Chemist, Mathematician, and Physicist. Prior to World War II, his work and publications centered in those fields.

In 1942, Philip Morse organized a group in the Navy to analyze antisubmarine tactics, and Kimball was one of the first persons recruited. Within the year he became Deputy Director of the group, called the Operations Research Group (ORG) during the war, later called the Operations Evaluation Group, U.S.N. It grew to over seventy analysts by 1945. Kimball's abilities were in daily use as an educator, as a universal scientific encyclopedia, and as a deviser of simple algorithms to solve tough problems quickly. His colleague then and later, Arthur A. Brown, comments: "In the ORG the initial work dealt with search and with the optimum geometric patterns for the depth charge bombing of German U-boats. In a very short space of time the group was working on tactical patterns for destroyer attacks, on the question of reliability of aircraft sightings, and the related question of whether or not to send out a destroyer force. At the end of the war some of the Operations Research Group decided to delay returning to their peacetime positions long enough to record what had been learned. Kimball and Morse wrote the volume Methods of Operations Research.

After World War II, Kimball went to the Chemistry Department at Columbia, to resume his research and teaching in theoretical chemistry. That he was successful is evidenced by the dozen papers he published on chemical kinetics and on other subjects in chemical physics. Honors began to come his way. He received the Presidential Citation of Merit for his war work; he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1954. He also retained his interest in the new field he had helped pioneer during the war, operations research. He continued his contacts with the Navy, acting as consultant with the Operations Evaluation Group and serving on various advisory panels on underwater ordnance. When the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group (WSEG) was formed in 1949, to carry out operations analysis for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense, he contributed to its work, for a time as consultant and then for a while as a full-time member of the group. He also assisted in organizing the NATO Advisory Panel on Operations Research.

Even during the war Kimball had become convinced that operations research could be effectively applied in industry and in the public sector. He was interested in enlarging public awareness of its potentialities and was active in organizing the Operations Research Society of America, which was founded in 1952, with Kimball as a member of the society's first council. By 1964, when he was elected the society's president, the society had about 5,000 members.

In the 1950s Kimball began to spend some time with the operations research division of Arthur D. Little, Inc., assisting in its consulting work for industry and for the Navy. This work increasingly engrossed his attention until, in 1956, he left Columbia and came full time to A. D. Little, first as Science Advisor and then, in 1961, as Vice President. When asked, later, whether he missed teaching, he replied that he was still teaching and that it was a greater challenge to teach people who didn't want to learn or didn't know they were learning.

Much of his work with A. D. Little dealt with applications of theory to the specific problems of the client. Most of this has of course not been published. A partial list of his internal reports and notes indicates that he initiated developments in dynamic programming, decision theory, inventory, and reliability theory, which others fed into the open literature later. Kimball was never particularly interested in publication. He would spend a great deal of time solving specific problems of immediate importance, or in making clear the underlying theory to clients or to classes, but to establish priority by publication, with all its drudgery of typescript, galley and page proof, had less attraction for him than some new problem. He always maintained that there was too much publication anyway.

Kimball's style of work was rooted in his personality. It was characterized by simplicity of thought and method. Another characteristic was theoretical power and depth. A third was a permanent adherence to reality. He never liked the spinning of elaborate webs of mathematics and he never liked to be too far from actual data. He was sensitive to problems of wording, emphasis, and timing in the presentation of research results, but he was wholly uncompromising in matters of principle. He set an example worth following.

He could bring concepts from chemistry to bear on inventory and marketing problems; he could devise an abstruse mathematical algorithm to make a digital computer produce random numbers as fast as was needed. Everything he did had to be done well; if he couldn't do it well he didn't do it. In fact, his uncompromising standards kept him from publishing much good work, because it wasn't in final, polished form. Many of us wished that more of his lectures could have reached a wider audience, but that was not his way. He preferred to work directly with people, not via the printed word. And this was in line with his concentration on immediate problems, rather than on abstract theory.

BA (Quantum Chemistry), 1928, Princeton; PhD (Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics), 1933, Princeton

(Adapted from Philip Morse's biography of George E. Kimball. That biography was abridged from Biographical Memoirs, National Academy of Science, Vol. 43, New York: Columbia University Press, 1973).