Dr. Jay W. Forrester

Dr. Jay W. Forrester

In recognition of his pioneering accomplishments in the field of feedback control systems, his key role in the design and implementation of the Whirlwind digital computer, and his foundational work in systems dynamics, coupled with his dedication to teaching which continued into his nineties, and his nationally and internationally recognized efforts to continuously improve computer science and engineering, systems science, and computational management, the School of Computing at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln proudly inducts Dr. Jay W. Forrester into the Nebraska Hall of Computing.


Jay W. Forrester was born and educated in Nebraska. He is a pioneer computer engineer and systems scientist. Neither field existed when he first attended the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in the 1930s.

He was born on a cattle ranch near Anselmo, Nebraska in 1918. In high school, he built a wind-driven, 12-volt electrical system using old car parts, which gave the ranch its first electric power. He had long decided to attend the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and had a scholarship to the Agriculture College, but decided to major in electrical engineering. He graduated in 1939 with distinction and served in the Army ROTC on campus. As he tells his own story:

I grew up on a cattle ranch in Nebraska in the middle of the United States. A ranch is a cross-roads of economic forces. Supply and demand, changing prices and costs, and economic pressures of agriculture become a very personal, powerful, and dominating part of life. Furthermore, in an agricultural setting, life must be very practical. It is not theoretical; it is not conceptual without purpose. One works to get results. It is full-time immersion in the real world. In high school, I built a wind-driven electric plant that provided our first electricity. That was a very practical activity. When I finished high school, I had received a scholarship to go to the Agricultural College [at Nebraska] when one of those important turning points intervened. Three weeks before enrolling at the Agricultural College, I decided it wasn't for me. Herding cattle in Nebraska winter blizzards never had appealed to me. So instead, I enrolled in the Engineering College at the University of Nebraska. Electrical engineering, as it turns out, was about the only academic field with a solid, central core of theoretical dynamics. And so, the road to the present began.

Upon graduation, Forrester went to graduate school at MIT and worked under Gordon Brown, who had just taken a position as a faculty member and who a year later founded the Servomechanisms Laboratory. This laboratory did pioneering research into control systems for machines, which led to the automatic fire-control and aiming systems used during the Second World War.

This early work in feedback control systems was extremely practical and his knowledge led to being a support engineer for the experimental units installed on the USS Lexington. When they stopped working, he volunteered to go to Pearl Harbor in 1942. He fixed the problem as the ship sailed off-shore during the invasion of Tarawa.  He tells of that harrowing experience with the voice of a Nebraska rancher:

Having discovered the problem [with the faulty system], but not having time to fix it, the executive officer of the ship came to me and said they were about to leave port. He asked if I would like to come with them and finish my job? So I said "Yes," having no idea quite what that meant. We were off-shore during the invasion of Tarawa and then took a turn down through the middle between the Sunrise and Sunset chains of the Marshall Islands. The islands were occupied on both sides by Japanese fighter-plane bases and they didn't like having a U.S. Navy Task Force wrecking their airports. So they kept trying to sink our ships. After dark they dropped flares along one side of the task force and come in with torpedo planes from the other side. Finally at 11 p.m. they succeeded in hitting the Lexington, cutting off one of the four propellers and setting the rudder in a hard turn. Again, it gave a very practical view of how research and theory are related to the field application.

Together with other members of the lab, they were involved in the development of Whirlwind, the first all-digital computer.  As a part of the Whirlwind project, Forrester invented and patented coincident-current random-access magnetic core memory.  The Whirlwind work eventually became a component of SAGE  (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) which became the  air defense system for North America. Forrester continued his research in electrical and computer engineering until 1956.

He then left engineering to pursue the study and exploitation of Systems Dynamics, which he wisely felt had a great role to play in large organizations wrestling with complex interrelated sub-systems.  He moved to the MIT Sloan School of Management MIT, where he is currently the Germeshausen Professor Emeritus and Senior Lecturer. Forrester’s work in systems dynamics was so extensive that today he is recognized as the creator of this important field.

Throughout his lifetime he has earned much recognition and received many awards including the IEEE Computer Pioneer Award and in 1989 he received the National Medal of Technology.  In 2006 he was inducted into the Operational Research Hall of Fame.

Dr. Forrester passed away on November 16, 2016, at his home in Concord, Massachusetts. He was 98.

Forrester says: "We grow good people in our Nebraska small towns, with honesty, sincerity and hard work as their byword it is no wonder they succeed."

Forrester, Jay W.  "The Beginning of System Dynamics", Talk delivered at the International Meeting of the System Dynamics Society, Stuttgart, Germany, July 13, 1989.     http://static.clexchange.org/ftp/documents/sdintro/D-4165-1.pdf

"Jay W. Forrester", IEEE Biographies, 1972. http://webservices.ieee.org/pindex_basic.html?src=ms

"Jay Wright Forrester", Wikipedia, 2008. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jay_Wright_Forrester

"Jay W. Forrester Oral History", Computer World Honor Program International Archives, Interviewer: David Allison, National Museum of American History, 1998.

Forrester, Jay W. "Designing the Future", University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Contacts, Spring, 2003.  http://www.nuengr.unl.edu/publications/ENonline/Spring03/Feature4.html