engineering achievements of the 20th century

Yesterday, I blogged about NAE grand challenges and how operations research can contribute to those grand challenges. You may find the list of 20th century engineering achievements interesting. The NAE’s full list of engineering achievements with an explanation for each item, can be found at Here is the brief list courtesy of the NAE publication The Bridge. The list is ordered according to importance.

  1. Electrification-Vast networks of electricity provide power for the developed world.
  2. Automobile-Revolutionary manufacturing practices made cars more reliable and affordable, and the automobile became the world’s major mode of transportation.
  3. Airplane-Flying made the world accessible, spurring globalization on a grand scale.
  4. Water Supply and Distribution-Engineered systems prevent the spread of disease, increasing life expectancy.
  5. Electronics-First with vacuum tubes and later with transistors, electronic circuits underlie nearly all modern technologies.
  6. Radio and Television-These two devices dramatically changed the way the world receives information and entertainment.
  7. Agricultural Mechanization-Numerous agricultural innovations led to a vastly larger, safer, and less costly food supply.
  8. Computers-Computers are now at the heart of countless operations and systems that impact our lives.
  9. Telephone-The telephone changed the way the world communicates personally and in business.
  10. Air Conditioning and Refrigeration-Beyond providing convenience, these innovations extend the shelf-life of food and medicines, protect electronics, and play an important role in health care delivery.
  11. Highways-44,000 miles of U.S. highways enable personal travel and the wide distribution of goods.
  12. Spacecraft-Going to outer space vastly expanded humanity’s horizons and resulted in the development of more than 60,000 new products on Earth.
  13. Internet-The Internet provides a global information and communications system of unparalleled access.
  14. Imaging-Numerous imaging tools and technologies have revolutionized medical diagnostics.
  15. Household Appliances-These devices have eliminated many strenuous, laborious tasks, especially for women.
  16. Health Technologies-From artificial implants to the mass production of antibiotics, these technologies have led to vast health improvements.
  17. Petroleum and Petrochemical Technologies-These technologies provided the fuel that energized the twentieth century.
  18. Laser and Fiber Optics-Their applications are wide and varied, including almost simultaneous worldwide communications, noninvasive surgery, and point-of-sale scanners.
  19. Nuclear Technologies-From splitting the atom came a new source of electric power.
  20. High-performance Materials-They are lighter, stronger, and more adaptable than ever before.

I find it interesting that OR hasn’t obviously contributed to these 20th century achievements. The 20th century achievements celebrate making things, not improved systems. Our world is becoming increasingly more complex and interconnected – and this sometimes makes us more vulnerable and fragile. This is reflected in the list of 21st century challenges. We need operations research to improve connections, ensure efficiency, and introduce resilience. As highlighted in the NSF-sponsored report in yesterday’s post, OR will clearly make important contributions to 21st century challenges.

Last semester I team-taught a course to freshman about engineering grand challenges. The idea was to talk about a theme (mine was Mega-cities) that cuts across all engineering disciplines to help students pick a major. It was interesting to talk about how during their careers, they will solve problems that we don’t know that exist. We talked about the 20th century achievements as a springboard for talking about what awaits us in the 21 century.

I sometimes tell my students that the world runs on eighth grade math – many important systems are shockingly simplistic and there is plenty of room to apply operations research to make things work better. This isn’t universally true, many systems are becoming more complex and interconnected, and eighth grade math no longer cuts it. Higher education and graduate education is needed just to keep up.

The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) published a list of the top 10 algorithms in the 20th century [Link] in chronological order. The simplex algorithm is on the list (obviously!), despite George Dantzig being teased for assuming the world is linear.

  1. the Monte Carlo method or Metropolis algorithm, devised by John von Neumann, Stanislaw Ulam, and Nicholas Metropolis;
  2. the simplex method of linear programming, developed by George Dantzig;
  3. the Krylov Subspace Iteration method, developed by Magnus Hestenes, Eduard Stiefel, and Cornelius Lanczos;
  4. the Householder matrix decomposition, developed by Alston Householder;
  5. the Fortran compiler, developed by a team lead by John Backus;
  6. the QR algorithm for eigenvalue calculation, developed by J Francis;
  7. the Quicksort algorithm, developed by Anthony Hoare;
  8. the Fast Fourier Transform, developed by James Cooley and John Tukey;
  9. the Integer Relation Detection Algorithm, developed by Helaman Ferguson and Rodney Forcade; (given N real values XI, is there a nontrivial set of integer coefficients AI so that sum ( 1 <= I <= N ) AI * XI = 0?
  10. the fast Multipole algorithm, developed by Leslie Greengard and Vladimir Rokhlin; (to calculate gravitational forces in an N-body problem normally requires N^2 calculations. The fast multipole method uses order N calculations, by approximating the effects of groups of distant particles using multipole expansions)

What is your favorite 20th century OR contribution? What is your favorite anecdote about a complex system relying on eighth grade math?



2 responses to “engineering achievements of the 20th century

  • prubin73

    OR might not have been involved in the development of electrical networks, but optimization plays a substantial role in their operation (as does forecasting, and perhaps simulation). Similarly, while the Internet may have evolved without OR, I believe that routing algorithms are involved in its operation. As for computers, without integrated circuits they would still be restricted to large boxes in climate-controlled rooms, and my understanding is that layout problems (whether you consider those “OR” or “graph theory”) are solved by techniques familiar to the OR crowd.

  • brianborchers

    Queueing theory made very important contributions to the development of the telephone network and later the internet. Engineering design optimization has played a role in virtually all of the engineering achievements mentioned.

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