Armour Research Foundation/IITRI

Armour Research Foundation in the Mid-20th Century

Armour Research Foundation was an important operations research organization in the mid-20th century. As independent OR firms on the east and west coasts further expanded their significance and impact in the field, Armour Research was beginning to fill that role in the Midwest. By the 1950s, they became one of the most active centers for OR in the region. This was accomplished by hiring researchers and practitioners from various backgrounds and careers, each of whom brought fascinating life experiences and unique mindsets. These diverse persons of interest and their openness to exploring and sharing novel methodologies allowed Armour Research to achieve significant heights and contribute to the greater operations research community.

The Foundation was established in 1936 as the affiliated industrial research firm of the Armour Institute, a private university in Chicago that specialized in “practical education.” While the later consolidated other schools and restructured into the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in 1940, the Foundation remained true to its original name and purpose, supporting the faculty of the university and taking on private contracts across multiple, intersecting industries. By the 1950s, the organization was hiring operations researchers whose experiences during the significant events and tragedies surrounding the Second World War shaped their ways of thinking and brought forth a generation of more socially conscious and aware practitioners.

One such hire of interest was Frederick C. Bock. Bock had been a pilot during WWII and flew as captain of the Boeing B-29 “Superfortress" bomber Bockscar (christened after a pun on his name). In the aftermath of the nuclear strike on Hiroshima in August 1945 (a mission from which Bock was excluded), he and his crew switched aircraft with Major Charles Sweeney, pilot of The Great Artiste and commander of his flight squadron. Bock and The Great Artiste escorted Sweeney and Bockscar to Nagasaki in the early morning of August 9th, where the latter dropped the Fat Man plutonium bomb. Charged with the measurement of damage impact and blast radius, Bock, who was accompanied by New York Times science writer William Laurence, was remarked to have been “nonchalant” and “masterful” with his flying during the mission (Laurence 1946). He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service. Though a student of philosophy prior to the war, Bock returned stateside and completed graduate studies in genetics and mathematical statistics. He received a PhD in Zoology and joined the eclectic workforce of multidisciplinary researchers at Armour. During his time at the Foundation, Bock contributed to many key operations research areas and created an algorithm for solving travelling-salesman and related network optimization problems, publishing it in 1958 (Bock 1958). This algorithm, among others he developed, became widely used by OR practitioners in many spaces.

Another noteworthy Armour research associate from the period was Brian Glüss. A renowned statistician and eventual Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, Glüss was a survivor of the London Blitz who witnessed the death of his grandmother and brother. He was stricken with grief and survivor’s guilt through his teenage years and didn’t outwardly revisit the subject until his mid-twenties. Having found solace and inspiration in the writings of American psychoanalyst William Niederland, Glüss used novel counseling tactics to work one-on-one with other wartime survivors. He worked at Armour Research in the late 1950s, merging classic statistics with modern OR methods and computing programming. His developments at the time included an optimum policy for detecting fault in a complex system and methods for calculating the costs of incorrect data in optimal inventory computation (Glüss 1959 & Glüss 1960). Glüss left Armour in 1962 to pursue a PhD in electrical engineering from UC Berkeley.

Partially due to these gentlemen and the others who worked there, Armour was among the forward-thinking organizations that embraced new technologies and fostered novel methodologies for their research and contracted projects. Many of their personnel, like Glüss and Bock, not only used computer applications in operations research but developed and published their tricks and methods, helping grow this area for OR users across the United States. Their advancements were publicly shared as Armour promoted industry-wide advancement. In 1955, they hosted the Second Annual Computer Applications Symposium, highlighting an openness for collaboration and willingness to contribute to the OR community at large. Armour leadership and others recognized that “the rapid growth of electronic computation in all phases of industry from the laboratory to the office [required] conferences at which experienced and inexperienced programmers exchange formal and informal information” (Varnum 1956). This gathering brought together users and programmers from academia and industry, highlighting the rapidly converging areas of university research and real-world application.

By its 20th year, the Foundation employed more than 1100 full-time staff members and had an annual research volume of about $11,00,000 (approximately $103 million in 2019 dollars) (Armour Research Foundation 1956). In 1961, they became the major center for development of the APT (Automatically Programmed Tools) programming language for numerical controlled machining (Brown, et al. 1961). Beyond computer simulations and other OR-centric studies, the organization was taking on projects for an array of clients in many scientific areas, ranging from applied and nuclear physics to developments in telecommunications. Armour Research was officially renamed IIT Research Institute (IITRI) to better align collaboratively with the Illinois Institute of Technology. While IITRI has since downsized and become more singularly targeted (IITRI has primarily focused on biomedical research since 2002) (IITRI 2002), its initial impact at the mid-century cannot be understated. By hiring open-minded, diverse-thinking individuals with personality-shaping experiences, Armour Research pieced together a staff that was willing to explore new methods and push forward the growth of operations research. In doing so, they were able to create a lasting impact in a rapidly changing field and its applied areas.

Links and References

Armour Research Foundation (1956) [advertisement]. Journal of Jet Propulsion, 26(5), 13-S.

Bock, F. (1958) An Algorithm for solving travelling-salesmen and related network optimization problems. Operations Research, 6(6), 897.

Bock, F. C., Kantner, H., & J. Haynes (1957) An algorithm (the r-th best path algorithm) for finding and ranking paths through a network. Armour Research Foundation: Chicago, IL.

Brown, S. A., Drayton, C. E., & B. Mittman (1961) A description of the APT language. Communications of the ACM 6(11), 649-658. 

Glüss, B. (1959) An optimum policy for detecting a fault in a complex system. Operations Research, 7(4), 423-552.

Glüss, B. (1960) Costs on Incorrect Data in Optimal Inventory Computation. Management Science, 6(4), 363-505.

IITRI (2002) IIT 2003 Annual Report on Research, 41. IIT Research Institute: Chicago, IL.

Laurence, W. L. (1946) Dawn Over Zero: The Story of the Atomic Bomb. 7-13. Alfred A. Knopf: New York.

(2015) Obituary: Brian Glüss. Pembroke College Cambridge Society Annual Gazette, Iss. 89.

Saxon, W. (2000) “F. C. Bock, 82, Monitor of Nagasaki Bombing.” New York Times, August 29, 2000, A21.  

Varnum, E. C. (1956) The Analysts’ Bookshelf: Proceedings of the Second Annual Computer Applications Symposium, Armour Research Foundation of Illinois Institute of Technology. Operations Research, 4(4), 494-5.

Associated Historic Individuals

Caywood, Thomas E.