Jay Forrester Dies Aged 98
Friday, 18 November 2016

Jay Forrester. the computer pioneer who invented core memory while working on Project Whirlwind at MIT in the 1940s, and is even better known as the founder of the field of system dynamics modeling, died on November 16, 2016.

Born in Nebraska on July 14, 1918, Jay Wright Forrester was raised on a cattle ranch, interests were in science rather than farming. At the age of 12 he took the generator from a car and built a wind driven 12-volt power supply for the family farm. Although he planned to study agriculture at Nebraska State University he changed to electrical engineering at the last minute.



After graduation he moved to MIT to do research on high voltage transmission, but he became interested in servo mechanisms which became to topic of his Phd thesis. When the US Navy asked the MIT servo people to build an aerodynamic stability analyzer Forrester took on the project. He quickly realized that what was needed for the real time response required was a digital computer and this led to MIT's Project Whirlwind, the world’s first real-time digital computer, the story of which is in our history article, Jay Forrester and Whirlwind.

This article also explains how Forrester came up with the idea of using magnetic-core memory, a system that having been used in Whirlwind, went on to dominate the computer industry for two decades. Whirlwind was also the first to use a CRT display to show its output as text - with mercury delay being key to both technologies.

Whirlwind's follow-on project was the United States Air Forceʼs Semi Automatic Ground Environment, SAGE, a Cold War defense project that led to the creation of MIT's Lincoln Lab. SAGE was the first electronic air-defense system and a forerunner of today’s air-traffic-control systems.

Both Whirlwind and SAGE were recognized in 2012 with IEEE Milestones.  At the award ceremony attended by Forrester, Robert Everett, who had worked on Whirlwid, headed the SAGE project, and then became president of MITRE Corp praised Forrester’s leadership:

“I worked for Jay for many years. He was responsible for Whirlwind, and therefore for the construction of SAGE, and the creation of Lincoln Lab, and MITRE Corp. If it were not for him, the whole computer industry would be quite different.”

milestoneFrom left to right Robert Everett. Jay Forrester and IEEE president Gordon Day (Source: MIT News).

In 1956 Forrester decided that the SAGE project was running smoothly enough to do without him. He moved to the MIT School of Management to work on computer models of social systems and it was here that he developed the field of system dynamics modeling to help corporations understand the long-term impact of management policies.

According to Forrester, system dynamics:

“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.”

Having looked at Industrial Dynamics in a book published in 1961, Forrester expanded the scope of system dynamics first to urban decay in Urban Dynamics and  in his 1971 book “World Dynamics,” he developed global modeling, which examines population growth and industrialization in a world with finite resources. His Principles of Systems, first edition of which was published in 1968, with  2nd edition in 1998 is the recommended text for a free MIT course available through itunes.

In the New York Times article, Jay W. Forrester Dies at 98; a Pioneer in Computer ModelsJohn Sterman, the Jay W. Forrester professor of management at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management is quoted as saying:

“Simulations of dynamic systems are now indispensable throughout the physical and social science, not just in management, but also, for example, in astrophysics, biology, chemistry and climate change.

Jay developed the first model that treated interactions of population, the economy, natural resources, food and pollution in the context of the world as a whole.The work was counterintuitive and controversial, and it launched the field of global modeling.”

Also in the New York Times obituary, David C. Lane, who teaches system dynamics at the Henley School of Business at the University of Reading points out that Forrester's training as an engineer was pivotal to his insights into industrial processes.

“Here you have a man who starts as an electrical engineer, so he understands current flowing down wires and charge accumulating in capacitors.Then he moves into servomechanisms and feedback control. Then he makes this remarkable imaginative leap which is that those ideas are a way of threading together parts of a system, all connected by feedback loops. And once you start thinking like that, you’ve created an entirely new way of thinking.”

The obituary also relates:

In the seven decades he was at M.I.T., Professor Forrester retained an engineer’s curiosity about how things work, and occasionally voiced dismay that his students were not always so inclined.

He recalled in 2011 that he once asked students in an engineering class if they understood how the feedback mechanism in a toilet’s water tank maintained the water level.

“I asked them, ‘How many of you have ever taken the lid off a toilet tank to see how it works?’” he recalled. “None of them had. How do you get to M.I.T. without having ever looked inside a toilet tank?”

Forrester gained several awards during his lifetime including the IEEE Medal of Honor in 1972, National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 1989 and became a Fellow of the Computer History Museum in 1995.




Related Articles

Jay Forrester and Whirlwind

Core memory

How Memory Works 

IEEE Milestones for Whirlwind and SAGE


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