If you’re reading this blog, you know what operations research is, and therefore, you must also know what industrial engineering is. Everyone in IE knows what IE is. Or so we like to tell ourselves. Industrial engineering is a relative newcomer to the world of engineering, and in its short existence—much like Darwin’s finches—the field has undergone rapid evolution and speciation into various specialties. Operations research is one of those specialties, as are human factors and information engineering.

The ascension of industrial engineering


What does an IE have in common with an elevator? They both … I don’t know.

In the early 20th century, elevators were a key component to the proliferation of high-rise buildings across industrialized cities. As the buildings got taller though, elevator speeds remained the same, and eventually passengers began complaining that the wait for elevators during peak hours was unacceptably long. At one hotel in New York, the manager commissioned a study to improve elevator performance, but the study was unsuccessful in finding an economically reasonable method to make the elevators faster. However, one recent psychology graduate on staff at the hotel noticed that people were complaining about waiting only a few minutes. So, he put up mirrors in the elevator boarding areas so that the passengers would be happily entertained by their reflections while waiting. Magically (because psychology is black magic), the complaints stopped!

I heard that story during a keynote presentation at a conference several years ago, and learned from the speaker that the elevator experiment ended up being the first ever publication in the field of industrial engineering. The story is one of my favorite anecdotes to tell about IE, and I’ve retold it more than a few times over the years. However, in “researching” this blog entry, I haven’t been able to find any corroborating information that the elevator thing was ever published; I can’t even find an actual year in which the study took place. I wish I could remember the speaker’s name so I could tell him how upset and disillusioned I am. Or maybe I should just go stand in front of mirror for a few minutes until I feel better.

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