ORMS Today
February 1999

Remembrances and Reflections -  Robert Engel Machol (1917-1998)

Robert E. Machol, past president of ORSA, Kimball medalist and a contributor to the OR/MS field for more than 40 years, died Nov. 12, 1998 following a lengthy battle with cancer and heart disease. When a prominent member of the profession dies, common practice dictates that we praise his or her accomplishments. Given that Bob was already saluted in just such a fashion upon his 80th birthday in 1997 (OR/MS Today, August 1997, vol. 24, no. 4: pp. 55-56), this remembrance will be more personal.

Bob Machol's life involved a number of strands — aviation, scientific writing, systems engineering, chemistry, research, applying OR to sports, computing and mushrooms — that intertwined over the years. Consider his involvement with aviation. It started in 1940 when, fresh out of Harvard, Bob enlisted in the Marines, intent on becoming an aviator. Although Bob didn't earn his pilot's wings, he did emerge from World War II holding the rank of lieutenant commander.

Following the war, Bob became involved with research organizations (the Operations Evaluation Group and the University of Michigan's Willow Run Laboratories) that were looking for improved ways of defending the United States against air attack. This work led to Bob's groundbreaking book, "Systems Engineering," co-authored with the late Harry H. Goode.

In the 1960s Bob continued to pursue his interest in aviation as a consultant to the Airline Pilots Association. The pilot union was concerned with safety issues — in particular, potential mid-air collisions of bunched planes — over portions of the North Atlantic that were not covered by radar. Applying OR to the problem, Bob developed a set of minimum separation standards between aircraft which both enhanced safety and increased air space efficiency.

In 1986, having retired from an academic career at Northwestern University at the age of 68, Bob was named chief scientist for the Federal Aviation Administration. Bob studied a number of significant issues at the FAA, including the problems encountered by airplanes flying through volcanic ash and the effect of heat on runway surfaces. He made his biggest impact, however, in a familiar area — safe separation distances between aircraft. In this case, his work focused on small airplanes flying behind particular jet aircraft.

Drawing on his knowledge of aviation, OR and chemistry (he held a Ph.D. in chemistry from Michigan), Bob understood that smaller aircraft, if caught in "wake vortices" coming off the larger aircraft, were subject to potentially disastrous air disturbances. He demonstrated the importance of the phenomenon, and argued for increasing the separation between the jets and smaller, trailing aircraft. Unfortunately, because of political and economic pressure to maintain the status quo, it took two crashes of the type he had predicted, an investigative report by the Los Angeles Times and a Congressional hearing (in which Bob testified) to change the policy.

After he retired from the FAA, Bob used his knowledge to become that rarest of witnesses in American jurisprudence, a sort of "master witness," trusted by both sides to present the facts of the case in civil litigation resulting from airplane crashes. Both sides knew that, as a person of complete integrity, Bob Machol would tell the absolute truth about all of the issues. He was often called upon by the media to comment about airplane crashes, including an appearance on the Fox network just weeks before his death.

Bob's contributions to aviation were recognized by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University — the world's premier aviation university —which awarded him an honorary doctorate and on whose Board of Directors he served.

Bob was a man of words as well as scientific research. He often combined the two interests, starting early in his career when he served as the scientific editor of an encyclopedia. He cared deeply about the correct use of language, and used Fowler's "Modern English Usage" and Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" as guides. His own writing was crisp and to the point. His professional output included seven books and countless articles covering an array of subjects, from the assignment problem and optimal strategies in football to interstellar communications and aviation hazards. He authored two authoritative books on mushrooms.

Fittingly enough, Bob's first major assignment for ORSA was chair of its Publications Committee. His last assignment, and one he held with distinction for many years, was editor of the TIMS Series in Management Science. His series of pieces on "Principles of Operations Research" encapsulates the collective wisdom of the profession.

His writing skills served him well when he spent two years based in London as liaison scientist for the Office of Naval Research, traveling across Europe and North Africa reporting on scientific advances throughout the region.

Bob was an early advocate of computing, starting at the University of Michigan in the 1950s when computers were still being built by hand, one at a time. Bob featured pioneer work in computing, along with advances in OR, in his seminal book, "Systems Engineering." While at Purdue University, he brought computing into the university's electrical engineering curriculum. Later he was a member of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Working Group on computers in management.

Bob was a person who knew everyone and whom everyone knew. The personalities ranged from the members of INFORMS to the director of NASA's Ames Laboratories in California; from one-time presidential candidate John Anderson to the ambassador to Croatia; from professors and friends around the world to the many bright people who amused him. He will be missed by all who knew him.

Contributions can be made to: Robert E. Machol Scholarship Fund, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Office of Development, 600 South Clyde Morris Blvd., Daytona Beach, FL 32114.

A Hero Is Nothing but Bob Machol

By Arnold Barnett,

If Bob weren't Bob, I would never have known him. He was 68 when we met, an age when most people have either already retired or substantially cut back their professional lives. But Bob reached out to me in what I imagine is the way he reached out to a great many people: with an exceedingly angry letter.

Several U.S. jets had crashed at airports because of thunderstorm-induced wind shear, and I had suggested that in analogy with the policy for fogs landings and takeoffs be suspended when thunderstorms were raging within five miles of the airport. Bob complained that I had greatly underestimated the disruptiveness of such a scheme. We vigorously disagreed, which turned out to be a profoundly enjoyable experience (for both of us; Bob was just as delighted to be the target of a barb as the creator of one).

One day, a plane suffered a (nonfatal) wind-shear mishap at JFK when the nearest thunderstorm was 45 miles away. With delicious sarcasm, Bob said that my five-mile proposal was too modest: A "no-fly zone" should be enforced around an airport whenever a thunderstorm arose within 50 miles.

We proceeded to disagree on aviation safety matters, often in print. In one of our encounters, I expressed the hope that Bob, an able polemicist but above all a clear thinker, would "eventually come over to the side of the angels." The truth is, however, that Bob was always on the side of the angels. If, for example, his warnings about Boeing-757 wake vortices had been heeded, national policy would have changed before rather than after two fatal crashes.

I am too young to remember Bob's colorful presidency of ORSA, but I do recall the referendum on "unbundling." In essence, Bob thought that Operations Research had become incomprehensible, and would benefit from some exposure to market forces. There were two sides to the argument, and, like all great debaters, Bob thoroughly understood both. He lost the referendum, but the intense discussions he provoked so benefited the profession that, in a real sense, everybody won.

Bob was extremely sick throughout the years I knew him. He suffered at different times from three distinct variants of cancer and even more forms of heart disease. (Indeed, the maladies interacted; his chemotherapy was restricted because of his cardiac problems.) But while Bob could not ignore such afflictions and made sure he got first-rate medical care he was determined that they should not disrupt his life an iota more than necessary. Despite a siege that would have devastated practically anyone, he always seemed to be racing off to take the next cruise, write the next article, or ignite the next controversy.

When I reach 68, I want to be like Bob Machol. I would be happy with just some share of his brilliance, elegance, tenacity, wit, inquisitiveness, energy, warmth, and, not least, his extraordinary gallantry. It is said that we live in an age without heroes; Charlie Brown has announced that "a hero is nothing but a sandwich." Nonsense. A hero is nothing but Bob Machol.

Chutzpah, Bravado and Guts

By Joseph Engel,
Past President, ORSA

I first worked with Bob Machol at OEG starting in 1949, where he was scientific editor.

Bob already exhibited his encyclopedic knowledge and his willingness to speak his mind when sometimes unpleasant things had to be said. When he reappeared in my circle of professional colleagues in the 1960s, we soon became close friends and colleagues. We joked that he and I might be long-lost cousins because his middle name was my family name (and spelled the same way).

Our professional lives and social lives became closely intertwined, and we went to many ORSA and IFORS functions together with our wives. Bob and I often traded off jobs or ORSA responsibilities. We both served closely in time as ORSA secretary and president, and as WORMSC president. We also served on many ORSA committees together, as well as on panels at meetings (sometimes he'd be the chairman; sometimes I would).

When several of us active ORSA types co-authored the special ORSA Journal Report on ethical guidelines on the practice of OR, Bob, who had just been elected ORSA president, wrote an introductory letter in the issue, and staunchly defended the right of the Society to set guidelines for practice, in the face of opposition from some of the all-but-enshrined founding fathers.

When Bob moved to Chicago in 1963 he became chairman of the Department of Systems Engineering at University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, but left a few years later to join the faculty at Northwestern. He then started nagging me to take over his old job at UICC, and in 1970, when I was seeking greener pastures, I did.

In 1986, Bob, still at Northwestern, had arranged to do a consulting job for me at the National Bureau of Standards, where, by then, I was chief of their OR Division. Bob was lecturing at the University in Copenhagen just before the consulting job was to start when he suddenly fell ill and was rushed back to the States for emergency treatment. That was the beginning of his 12-year battle with cancer.

With the typical mixture of Machol chutzpah, bravado and guts, Bob (still in his hospital bed) wheedled and cajoled me not to cancel the consulting job I'd promised him. He wanted to go on living with his boots on as soon as they'd let him out of the hospital, and I was delighted at his spirit, and more than willing to have him join us. He was a real trooper and turned in a fine report at the end of his two-month stint.

During the first couple of weeks after he was released from the hospital, his wife, Florence, drove him to work every day. She sat in the corridor knitting while he worked, and then drove him home. At first he used a wheelchair, then graduated to a walker, and finally a cane. We put a cot in his office so he could rest if need be during the day.

His work in his last years at the FAA was also an inspiration to us all, the way he ferreted out some of the safety problems the airlines were experiencing or about to experience, and did his best to get the agency to take corrective action. Through it all Bob was supported by Florence and their children, Margo and Kennard.

Sage Advice at Critical Moments

By Paul Gray,
Past President, TIMS

Bob Machol was a private, caring individual who changed my life (and many others) for the better. My first recollection of meeting Bob was at Willow Run Research Center in Michigan in 1951. I was a 20-year old research assistant who had recently learned to play bridge. Someone was missing from the noon-time game and I was called upon to be Bob's partner — a daunting experience for both of us.

About a year later, I wrote a report, and as is usually the case, my boss rewrote it. He brought the manuscript to Bob, who was technical editor. Bob read through it and said it was terrible. My boss replied, "You should have seen the original."

Bob said, "Let me see it."

A few days later I was working for Bob, and my career changed. It turned out to be the first of several times that he did so.

I remember the days in Ann Arbor, with the cozy house, the young children, Bob and Florence's great hospitality, the wonderful speaker system in the house, the carpool to the office 15 miles away, going mushroom hunting with him and being awed by his knowledge of which species were dangerous to consume and which were not.

Flash forward to 1960. I received a letter that began, "Hi! Want a Ph.D.?" and that offered an instructorship at Purdue University. Bob, having taken a Ph.D. in chemistry, had become a professor of electrical engineering. I was to teach undergraduate electrical engineers how to write (a nearly impossible task) and do graduate work.

Electrical engineering, he said, had become a branch of applied mathematics, and that is where my skills were. Of course, fate intervened. Bob joined a scientific start-up (before they were fashionable) in Ann Arbor almost as soon as I arrived. He then gave me the key recommendation that led to a job at Stanford Research Institute ... and changed my career to one in OR.

In 1969, Bob, then secretary of ORSA, asked me to take on the relatively minor task of "editing" the Bulletin of the society. That earned me a place in the profession's hierarchy. Later he appointed me chair of the Publications Committee, which ultimately led to the presidency of The Institute of Management Sciences two decades later.

Although we lived at opposite ends of the country, we would see one another regularly all over the world — at professional meetings, at each other's houses, in California when Bob and Florence came West, his apartment in Washington and at his office at the FAA. At almost every one of these meetings I would learn something new.

We worked together on scientific papers. We washed each other's professional laundry. He arranged for me to give the after-dinner lecture to the Washington OR/MS society when they met at the British Embassy.

Only a few months ago, he went through and edited a paper of mine. He was always there when I needed him. When I called him, I would get sage advice at critical moments. Ours was the classic mentor-student relationship and one for which I shall always be grateful

A Memorable Month in China

By Stephen C. Graves,

I first met Bob Machol and his delightful wife Florence in Shanghai in August 1982. We, along with my wife, spent a truly remarkable and memorable month together in China, combining work and fun.

The Chinese had invited Bob to deliver a lecture series on systems engineering. The set of 10 lectures covered a variety of topics, starting with the origins of systems engineering and operations research, and concluding with ethical guidelines for the practice of operations research. Bob described in detail three projects he had been involved in that were exceptional illustrations of the principles of systems analyses. I had the good fortune to attend these lectures.

I recount this as it reminds me of some of the lessons Bob preached and practiced throughout his professional career:
  • Make sure that you're solving the right problem.

  • Listen and observe, but question everything.

  • Follow the data wherever it leads you.

  • Use mathematics and mathematical models sparingly and with a purpose.

  • Learn the technology and be aware of the political or organizational context; fit the mathematics accordingly.

  • Understand your role, either as an advocate or an analyst.
But maybe the most important lessons were from the truly dynamic duo, Bob and Florence: how they lived life together in all of its glory, enjoying every aspect of their days together and not willing to miss a thing.

That's a lesson we should all try to learn.

Setting High Standards

By Bob Rovinsky,
Federal Aviation Administration

Bob Machol left a legacy of many scientific papers and textbooks, of having been present and participated in the birth of two disciplines — system engineering and operations research — of editing and contributing to numerous journals and scientific and lay articles, and of years of teaching and lecturing to both the technical community and the general public. But his real legacy, for those of us who knew him, goes much deeper.

What Bob stood and fought for all his long life was intellectual, professional and moral integrity. Compromise with truth or quality was anathema to Bob. He ensured that every piece of work that he had a hand in was absolutely the best it could be, and he insisted on it from every colleague and friend. He set a standard for the work ethic and for intellectual rigor that is hard for the next generation to understand, much less emulate.

Lastly, Bob knew how to live. He knew how to smoke a cigar, how to raise a family, how to collect fine things, how to tell a joke, how to entertain and how to have an intellectual conversation. He collected friends from all over the world and treated them well. We will not see his like again.

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