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.

Some actual history of industrial engineering

Regardless of whether or not the elevator study was ever published or when it happened, it is widely regarded as a classical example of industrial engineering. However, have you ever seen a course in an IE program that would teach, and much less advocate for, such a lowbrow solution? Probably not. So then we have to ask ourselves, “Was that really industrial engineering, and what is industrial engineering, anyway?”

The uncertainty about industrial engineering is evident in its historical roots, which are different everywhere you look. There are some widely recognized control points in the different IE timelines:

  • 1832: Charles Babbage publishes “On the Economy of Machinery and Manufacturers”
  • 1881: Frederick W. Taylor devises scientific management
  • 1885: Frank and Lillian Gilbreth perform the first time and motion studies
  • 1901: James Gunn provides the first use of the term “industrial engineer”, appearing in The Engineering Magazine
  • 1911: Frederick W. Taylor publishes “Principals of Scientific Management”
  • 1924: Henry Ford creates low cost mass consumption through assembly lines
  • 1939-1945: World War II leads to birth of operations research
  • 1973: Toyota Motor Company develops just-in time production (Toyota Production System, now commonly known as TPS)

It is pretty awesome to note that in Du Preez and Pintelon’s (1997) timeline of industrial engineering, University of Toronto is explicitly mentioned for “Integrated enterprise engineering” in 1997!

Frederick W. Taylor

Frederick W. Taylor, the father of management science (Source: http://digdamyyaasin.blogspot.ca/)

But where did it all begin? Many sources say IE began with Frederick W. Taylor (1856-1915), who is often considered the father of industrial engineering/management science, and others say it was James Watt (1736–1819) inventing the steam engine, and some say it may have been Adam Smith (1723-1790), the laissez-faire economics pioneer who wrote “The Wealth of Nations”. Others go even further and say the first industrial engineer was Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) because there is evidence that he studied how fast a man could shovel dirt, which could be interpreted to be a motion study.

With a field as broad as IE, a lot of license can be taken in claims about who “the first” industrial engineer was, leading to no clear answer about who started it all. Like how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop, the world may never know.

Our professional societies

Just in case you were also wondering how our professional societies came about, here is a timeline of the major societies that relate to operations researchers, with specific Canadian emphasis:

  • 1948: Institute of Industrial Engineers (IIE) is founded
  • 1952: Operations Research Society of America (ORSA) is founded
  • 1953: The Institute of Management Sciences (TIMS) is founded
  • 1957: International Federation of Operational Research Societies (IFORS) is founded
  • 1958: Canadian Operational Research Society (CORS) is formed
  • 1995: Institute for Operations Research and Management Science (INFORMS) is created with the merger of ORSA and TIMSs

Note the explosion of OR societies shortly following WWII. It’s no coincidence.

The Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at U of T

The history behind MIE is pretty interesting, too. Although the departments of mechanical engineering and industrial engineering are merged now, they used to be separate. But, the previous Department of Industrial Engineering was actually born out of the Engineering and Business program in the original Department of Mechanical Engineering.  The Engineering and Business program was started in 1945 (again, coinciding with WWII) and grew into the Department of Industrial Engineering in 1959. The two departments were merged again in 1995 for financial and logistic reasons (what could be more IE than that?).

If you are interested in learning more about MIE’s history, check out Prof. Andreas Mandelis’ article at http://www.mie.utoronto.ca/about/history.php. For more about IE’s history at U of T specifically, see the website for IE’s 50th anniversary: http://www.mie.utoronto.ca/IE50th/history/.

What does it all mean?

If you remember, I started this entry with the implication that you probably do not really know what IE is. Despite coming from a family of industrial engineers and having a collection of industrial and systems engineering diplomas myself, I’ve always been a little hazy on the details. Writing this article has only further deepened my conviction that my usual answer to the question of what is industrial engineering is correct: “Beats me”. And then proceed to make up something that sounds good, usually incorporating INFORMS’ slogan of “The science of better”.

The elevator anecdote illustrates that the real question is not what is industrial engineering, but how do we formulate the problems put before us? Clearly, the hotel manager envisioned the problem to be one of mechanical engineering, but formulating the problem as one of industrial engineering (specifically, human factors) turned out to be cheap and effective. An alternative IE approach would have been to use operations research to devise an algorithm to better schedule the elevator to reduce wait times. In fact, Macleans had an article just last year (2012) about improving elevator service by using algorithms to sequence elevators based on travelers’ destinations.

So which is better: designing a complex computer-driven algorithm to improve elevator service, or installing mirrors to make people forget there might be inefficiency? The algorithm, obviously … because it freaks me out to think that I am so easily manipulated that gawking at myself in a mirror like a narcissistic parrot makes me lose all track of time.


T. Bennett. “The history of industrial engineering”. http://ezinearticles.com/?The-History-Of-Industrial-Engineering&id=1161260. Accessed February 16, 2013.

Canadian Operational Research Society. “A brief history of the Canadian Operational Research Society”. http://www.cors.ca/en/society/index.php. Accessed February 16, 2013.

Coughlan, S. “On the up”. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/6531145.stm. Accessed February 16, 2013.

I. Currie and M. Carter. “Merger of the departments of mechanical engineering and industrial engineering – 1996”.  http://www.mie.utoronto.ca/IE50th/history/merger.php. Accessed February 16, 2013.

Department of Industrial Engineering, University of Louisville. “History”. http://louisville.edu/speed/industrial/About_IE/history/history.html. Accessed February 16, 2013.

Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology. “The roots of industrial engineering”. http://www.isye.gatech.edu/eemag/pdfs/20053Fall.pdf. Accessed February 16, 2013.

C. Gulli. “The end of the wait for the elevator”. http://www2.macleans.ca/2012/01/11/pushing-our-buttons/. Accessed February 16, 2013.

P. E. Hicks. “Industrial Engineering and Management” 2nd edition. Singapore: McGraw Hill International Edition. 1994.

Institute of Industrial Engineers. “History of IIE”. http://www.iienet2.org/Details.aspx?id=295. Accessed February 16, 2013.

Linderman, M. “Defining the problem of elevator waiting times”. http://37signals.com/svn/posts/1244-defining-the-problem-of-elevator-waiting-times. Accessed February 16, 2013.

A. Mandelis. “A brief history”. http://www.mie.utoronto.ca/about/history.php. Accessed February 16, 2013.

MirrorPros. “Information on elevator mirrors”. http://www.mirrorpros.com/elevator-mirrors.htm. Accessed February 16, 2013.

N. D. Du Preez and L. Pintelon. The industrial engineer- caught between two revolutions? Production Planning & Control: The Management of Operations. 8(5):418-430. 1997.

Wikipedia. “Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Institute_for_Operations_Research_and_the_Management_Sciences. Accessed February 16, 2013.

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